The current political debates in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election should focus our attention on the need to reconsider prisons and criminal justice policy. The United States is the largest jailer in the world. With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, it has an unrivaled incarceration rate. One in 100 adults is locked up: The incarceration rate is 750 per 100,000 residents.
The second highest incarceration rate is in Russia at 628 per 100,000, and not a single other Western industrial nation has a rate of more than 148 per 100,000. We imprison people at a rate five times higher than comparable Western industrial nations. The country accounts for 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of people in jail or prison. Is this a form of American exceptionalism that we want to continue?
At a time when the size and role of government are being debated, we need to question whether mass incarceration is wise policy and a good use of taxpayer dollars. More important is that we think about how mass incarceration threatens democracy and equality, two ideas central to our country.
Although social scientists have long recognized the prison epidemic, there has been a growing number of voices across the political spectrum calling for a review of mass incarceration. In 2007, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., conducted a hearing on the rise of the prison population and the economic and social costs of mass incarceration. After another hearing in 2009, Sen. Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act to form a bipartisan commission to analyze the criminal justice system. Sen. Webb reintroduced the bill in 2011 with bipartisan support and Republican co-sponsorship, and it has not as yet been passed.
Brian Walsh, a senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, testified in favor of forming the commission. In 2011, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, joined NAACP President Benjamin Jealous in a discussion on prison spending. Although the two disagreed on numerous points, Norquist concluded that reforms are needed and said, "When taxpayer activists look at it, we say, let's not waste money on prisons and the judicial system, if it's not getting us safer streets and safer cities."
Norquist's comments and social scientific studies indicate the need to disaggregate crime and mass incarceration. Allen J. Beck, deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, explained in 2007, "The growth wasn't really about increasing crime but how we chose to respond to crime."
Beginning in the mid-1970s, legislators implemented "tough on crime" polices that created longer sentences, mandatory minimums, and new prison sentences for drug violations. Then the U.S. launched a "war on drugs" in 1982, at a time of declining drug use. The war on drugs is often thought to be a response to the crack cocaine epidemic, but it preceded the horrible problems crack cocaine caused for users and people around them. The war on drugs — increased drug arrests, convictions, and prison sentences — is the central factor in mass incarceration. More than half of new prison sentences to state prisons between 1985 and 2000 were for drug offenses.
The U.S. spends more than $70 billion a year on corrections without clear evidence of the benefits. Marc Mauer, director of the Sentencing Project, notes that the growth of prisons and prisoners has not had a dramatic effect on crime rates. Between 1960 and 1990 the United States, Germany, and Finland had comparable crime rates, while Finland decreased its incarceration rate and Germany held its rate steady. The incarceration rate in the U.S., conversely, quadrupled.
The war on drugs and mass incarceration have exacerbated longstanding forms of racial inequality. Michelle Alexander, professor of law at Ohio State University and author of "The New Jim Crow," argues that this combination of events have formed a "system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."