Saturday, March 28, 2009

Industrial Production

America has an industrial strength system for producing criminals. Senator Jim Webb is not happy about it.

America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.

We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. Twenty-five years ago, I went to Japan on assignment for PARADE to write a story on that country's prison system. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding--and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan's prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million.
Let me see, 2.3 million divided by 71,000 is about a factor of 32. So we have 32 times as many prisoners per capita as Japan does. The disparity seems excessive. Senator Webb agrees.
The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision," which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.
In these days of trillion dollar budgets $68 billion dollars doesn't seem like a whole lot. But consider this: $68 billion is enough money to completely fund experiments on every type of fusion device known to man until there is a functioning net power generator. That includes things like ITER (which is already way over budget), Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) which is a very low budget operation, Cold Fusion which is not well understood, and a host of other schemes and devices. Then we take the $68 billion we are going to spend next year and put it into wind power research, the following year liquid fuels, another year energy storage, etc. So what am I saying? That the "investments" in the prison industrial complex are not giving us a good rate of return compared to some alternatives.

Senator Webb then goes into the why of it.
Over the past two decades, we have been incarcerating more and more people for nonviolent crimes and for acts that are driven by mental illness or drug dependence. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 16% of the adult inmates in American prisons and jails--which means more than 350,000 of those locked up--suffer from mental illness, and the percentage in juvenile custody is even higher. Our correctional institutions are also heavily populated by the "criminally ill," including inmates who suffer from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.
The "criminally ill" include not only those who come to prison with an illness but also those who have contracted their conditions in prison.

And what is the heart of incarceration mania?
Drug offenders, most of them passive users or minor dealers, are swamping our prisons. According to data supplied to Congress' Joint Economic Committee, those imprisoned for drug offenses rose from 10% of the inmate population to approximately 33% between 1984 and 2002. Experts estimate that this increase accounts for about half of the dramatic escalation in the total number imprisoned over that period. Yet locking up more of these offenders has done nothing to break up the power of the multibillion-dollar illegal drug trade. Nor has it brought about a reduction in the amounts of the more dangerous drugs--such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines--that are reaching our citizens.

Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales. Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses. And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans--who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population--accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.
It is almost like we have figured out how to reimpliment Jim Crow without mentioning race at all. We just tell our police: arrest the drug offenders. You know who (wink, nod) - those people. Stay out of Beverly Hills which is full of fine upstanding citizens who can cause a lot of political heat and focus on Compton where we can handle things our way.

So it doesn't have to be Jim Crow by design. It could be Jim Crow as an emergent property of the system. It is still Jim Crow.

H/T Drug Policy Forum of Texas

Cross Posted at Classical Values

1 comment:

Tom said...

Japan's population is about 125,000,000. The US is over 300,000,000, so don't forget to factor that in. Still it is a big difference.

The Japanese have some really stiff sentences for minor drug possession. Paul McCartney was briefly locked up once, and other prominent people have been too.

I was strip searched once in Japanese airport, on my way home from Thailand. I assume they were primarily looking for drugs.

Even so, I often saw evidence of minor drug use.