March 6, 2008

Incarcerex: One nation, behind bars

With none of the front-running presidential candidates challenging the United States' long-running incarceration mania, INCARCEREX (click on either that capitalized title or on the picture to the right) is an incredibly timely video.

Also timely is today's pull-no-punches editorial in the Detroit Free Press, "One Nation, Behind Bars," which goes like this right here:

The U.S. prison population, the world's largest, has grown nearly eightfold over the past 35 years and now costs taxpayers at least $60 billion a year. An eye-popping report released last week by the Pew Center on the States found that, for the first time, more than one in every 100 American adults is in jail or prison. And that figure doesn't count the hundreds of thousands of people who are on probation and parole.

What is the goal here? Is there a smarter way to get there? What are we as a society getting in return for all this money? What is this massive and growing penal system accomplishing?

Before the nation hits two in 100 behind bars, which seems inevitable, it's time for a national debate on corrections and criminal justice policies that will lead to a more rational, humane and cost-effective system. The nation has gotten far too little for its enormous investment in locking people up. Violent crime rates are higher than they were more than three decades ago, when tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory sentencing laws, created a prison-building boom.

States can no longer afford to divert so many resources from education, health care and other pressing needs. Michigan, for example, with one of the nation's highest incarceration rates, spends $2 billion a year on corrections, or 20% of its general fund. It is one of four states spending more on corrections than higher education. In today's economy, spending more on prisons than college is a recipe for failure.

Nor can the nation ignore the human costs of mass incarceration. Nearly half of the 2.3 million adults locked up are African Americans, who make up less than 13% of the U.S. population. A stunning one in nine black males between the ages of 20-34 is behind bars.

The large numbers of people incarcerated may well increase crime rates. Prison culture has become a norm in some urban neighborhoods, with more than 600,000 people a year returning home from prison and jails. They come back poorly educated, lacking job skills, and socially and legally disabled by felony records. One in 14 African-American children has a parent who is incarcerated, greatly increasing the chances that they, too, will grow up to go to prison.

The good news is that budget pressures are forcing states, including Michigan, to take steps to control their prison populations. On average, Michigan incarcerates at a 40% higher rate than surrounding Great Lakes states. But Michigan was also one of 14 states where prison population dropped over the past year. The state's prisoner re-entry program has reduced recidivism; in some cases, parole rates have gone up.

Michigan is also considering other initiatives, including sentencing reforms that divert more low-level offenders into community programs and releasing more severely sick or dying inmates who pose no risk.

All states must consider greater use of community supervision for low-risk offenders, as well as repealing harsh drug laws and mandatory sentencing policies, including three-strike laws, which result in unreasonably long prison stays.

Unacceptably high incarceration rates tear at the nation's social fabric and take public money from education, health care, transportation and other vital needs. Nor have they significantly reduced crime. It's time to re-examine the policies that have made us the incarceration nation.

Hat tip: Sentencing Law & Policy blog

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