Prisons "R" Us

February 17, 2000

Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, February 17, 2000

America is facing an epidemic of incarceration. Like a dread disease it has spread and multiplied until it begins to corrode the fabric of our society. The number of prisoners has multiplied six-fold over the past 27 years, and will reach the astounding milestone of two million some time
this year.

No other country, with the possible exception of Russia, puts so many of its people in cages. We have less than 5% of the earth’s population, but somehow manage to hold a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

How can this be? Are we afflicted with so much more crime than other countries? It turns out that for most crimes, we are not: the best available data place the United States at about average in its crime rate as compared to countries of similar income. The big exception is homicide: here America is number one among developed nations, with more than three times the rate of Canada or France, and six times the rate of Ireland.

This is, as everyone except the NRA seems to know, primarily a result of our widespread availability of firearms, as compared to other countries. More prisons will do little to address this problem. But the “Race to Incarcerate”– as Marc Mauer of the Washington-based Sentencing Project has aptly titled his new book– has not been fueled by an increase in homicides. Nor does increasing crime of any kind explain the explosive growth in our prison population, especially over the last two decades. Rather, it has been caused by deliberate policy changes that have brought more and longer prison sentences.

The biggest growth in incarceration has been for drug offenses. From 1980-1992, for example, the chance of going to prison for a drug offense rose by 447%. The “war on drugs” has now given us about a quarter of our prison population. Together with non-violent property crimes, these infractions account for the majority– more than a million people– incarcerated.

One would have to be blind– not color-blind– to fail to see the racism of these policies. African-Americans do not, as a group, use illegal drugs at a significantly higher rate than whites. Yet they are at least seven times as likely as whites to end up behind bars for drug offenses– and for much longer sentences. On the basis of present trends, more than one out of every four black males born today would end up doing time in prison. To ask the question, “would these policies persist if this were the fate of white males?” is to answer it.

Some people think that the sharp drop in crime rates over the last seven years is the result of increased incarceration, but there is so far little evidence of this. A glance at the last 25 years of crime statistics shows that crime rates have moved up and down, unrelated to the soaring incarceration rate.

The causes of declining crime rates are varied and difficult to parse out statistically: there are demographic effects, as the baby boom generation has passed its peak crime-committing years; the crack epidemic has waned of its own accord, as a new generation has learned from the mistakes and ruined lives of its predecessors; and the longest running peacetime economic expansion, with unemployment at a 30-year low, has undoubtedly helped.

The basic arithmetic of crime and punishment, as Mauer and others have demonstrated, explains why long-term studies show little impact of incarceration on crime. Most crimes go unreported; of those that are reported, most do not result in arrest. By the time we get to conviction and imprisonment, we are talking about roughly three percent of the homicides, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults that are committed. So there are severe limits to what longer and more frequent prison sentences can do to reduce crime.

From a purely economic perspective, we have long passed the point at which alternatives to the $20,000 annual price of locking someone up would be more cost effective in reducing crime. This is especially true for treatment of drug addiction, which is unavailable to the vast majority of poor people who need it.

But just as it took shameful cowardice and demagoguery on the part of politicians— of both parties– to bring us to this low point, it will take some real courage and leadership to shift priorities. Most of the major Presidential candidates have tried to portray themselves as compassionate, or motivated by other than opportunistic concerns. Yet the hideous inhumanity of unnecessarily incarcerating such enormous numbers of our fellow human beings seems not to bother them.

The public still has a sense of fairness that far exceeds that of its leaders, if a candidate were to appeal to it. Is anyone up to the task?

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