March 7, 2008

In the land of the free, every hundredth American is behind bars

By David A. Love

Published by the Progressive Media Project

March 4, 2008

We are locking too many people up in the land of the free.

For the first time in the United States, more than one in 100 adults is a prisoner. This is news that should concern all of us.

The United States has the dubious honor of locking up more people than any other nation. Today, we have 2.3 million people behind bars, according to a recent report released by the Pew Center on the States.

That's more people than China, which has 1.5 million prisoners, and Russia, which has 890,000. And it’s more than Iran.

Contrast the United States with Germany, which has an incarceration rate of 93 people per 100,000 adults. Our rate is eight times that.

We’re paying a grave cost for this splurge on prison cells.

First is the price to the human beings who are needlessly penned up for long sentences — and to their families.

And second is the price to our state governments, which are starving for cash right now.

Last year, the states spent a total of $49 billion on corrections — 6.8 percent of general funds, or 1 of every 15 dollars — up from $12 billion in 1987, adjusted for inflation. Prison growth, fueled by staff overtime and inmate health-care costs, outpaced increases in spending for education and Medicaid.

Thirteen states spend more than $1 billion a year on corrections, with California at the top with an $8.8 billion expenditure last year. By 2011, according to Pew, continued growth in prisons will cost the states an additional $25 billion.

The racial inequities in America's prison boom are clear. While 1 in 106 white men are behind bars, 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 15 black men are incarcerated.

If you’re a black woman, you are three and a half times more likely to be incarcerated than if you’re a white woman.

This incarceration boom does not correspond to a crime boom. Rather, it reflects bad policy priorities, including three-strikes laws and other draconian sentencing.

And these policies aren’t working. More than half of released offenders are back in prison within three years, whether for violating the terms of their release or for committing a new offense.

"For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn't been a clear and convincing return for public safety," according to Adam Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project.

We must find more effective, more sensible and less expensive ways to address crime, and build up individuals, families and communities in the process.

Investing in education, jobs, drug treatment and recidivism programs would be a good start. And bipartisan efforts in areas such as community supervision of nonviolent and lower-risk offenders could empty prison beds and create productive taxpaying citizens.

If we don’t do this, we will increasingly be a nation of prisoners and prison guards.

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