Friday, April 25, 2008

The Prison State

Adam Liptak had a terrific column on the burgeoning US prison population in Wednesday's NY Times. The comparison of the US statistics with the rest of the world was staggering.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

One explanation for the disparity is the fact that the US tends to have a lot of crimes committed with guns, which are easily accessible in the country, unlike the rest of the world. In most states, the use of a gun in the commission of a crime results in enhanced sentencing. But more has to be at work here.

Despite the recent decline in the murder rate in the United States, it is still about four times that of many nations in Western Europe.

But that is only a partial explanation. The United States, in fact, has relatively low rates of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary and robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England.

People who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks, Mr. Whitman wrote.

Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role in explaining long prison sentences in the United States as well. In 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000.

As the article makes clear, the authorities, particularly Attorney General Mukasey, are resisting any call for the reduction of sentences for drug offenses. Diversion programs, like those being tried in California for first offenders with minimal amounts of drugs involved (not enough for sales), are still too new to make any definitive conclusions, but they do appear to have had some success, although apprently Mr. Mukasey would disagree with that assessment. He represents that portion of the American public that believes drug offenders are dangerous criminals who need to be locked away, even for a first offense.

But it is not just the frequency with which incarceration is used as a sentence which distinguishes the American justice system from the rest of the world. The length of our sentences far exceeds those of our world neighbors.

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.

That rate, according to some analyses may be as high as 1% of the American population, which I find astounding. Given the cost to states for the building and running of prisons for that many people, it is no wonder that state budgets are beginning to buckle under the strain. Californians are beginning to realize this first hand.

While there are those who would argue that those who break the law must pay for their malfeasance, I don't see why locking people away for years for non-violent and/or victimless crimes is particularly necessary in a civilized society. It's time to revisit this aspect of our justice system.

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