Thursday, March 13, 2008

Incarceration Insanity: US Passes the 1% Mark

In news sure to improve America's reputation around the world, we have more than one of a hundred Americans incarcerated.

"The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

Using updated state-by-state data, the report said 2,319,258 adults were held in U.S. prisons or jails at the start of 2008 — one out of every 99.1 adults, and more than any other country in the world.

The steadily growing inmate population "is saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime," said the report.

The report said the United States is the world's incarceration leader, far ahead of more populous China with 1.5 million people behind bars. It said the U.S. also is the leader in inmates per capita (750 per 100,000 people), ahead of Russia (628 per 100,000) and other former Soviet bloc nations which make up the rest of the Top 10."

We should all let that one sink in for a while. More than any other country in the world. More than Russia. More than China. More than totalitarian regimes like North Korea, Iran, or even Cuba. How can we call ourselves the land of the free when we imprison more people than any other land? It sounds like something that came out of the Ministry of Truth, or Pravda.

I quibble with the comment above comparing rates of change between the prison costs and higher education. Such comparisons are easy to manipulate, and unless the underlying totals are similar, can be very deceiving. However, no doubt any legit comparison would also leave us disgusted at the absurd priorities we have.

So of course, we need to look at ways to cut costs.

Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, said budget woes are prompting officials in many states to consider new, cost-saving corrections policies that might have been shunned in the recent past for fear of appearing soft in crime.

"We're seeing more and more states being creative because of tight budgets," she said in an interview. "They want to be tough on crime, they want to be a law-and-order state — but they also want to save money, and they want to be effective.".

This is the same old rhetoric, and it isn't going to work. As long as the American definition of "crime" remains that which includes a whole host of offenses against no one (drug use, gambling, prostitution, pornography), or amounts to a clerical discrepency, such as failure to appear, we will make no headway. Changes like those in Texas and Kansas are a move in the right direction:

"The report cited Kansas and Texas as states which have acted decisively to slow the growth of their inmate population. Their actions include greater use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and employing sanctions other than reimprisonment for ex-offenders who commit technical violations of parole and probation rules."

And the most shocking part of the whole issue? We don't have increasing crime:

The report said prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime or in the nation's overall population. Instead, it said, more people are behind bars mainly because of tough sentencing measures, such as "three-strikes" laws, that result in longer prison stays.

As with so many other issues, America has some choices to make. We simply cannot afford, both economically and morally, to imprison so much of our population, especially when so many are there for offenses that are either not offenses at all in the rest of the world, or are considered minor. We have a de facto Sharia in this country, and it has to stop before we have no one left to guard the prisoners, and no respect left in the world.

No comments: