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."
More than half of prisoners are African-American and 19 percent are Latino, which is significantly out of proportion to the population of the country. Some of the statistics are alarming: One in 30 men ages to 20 to 34 is incarcerated, but one in nine black men in that age group is behind bars. More than half of young African-American men in major cities are under the control of the criminal justice system or have criminal records.
The racial disparities in mass incarceration are troubling, especially because they have little connection to crime rates. The major cause of prison growth has been the war on drugs, and it has disproportionately affected people of color. Yet drug use and drug selling rates are similar across racial lines. One government study has shown that white youths are a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African-American youths. "Although the majority of drug users and dealers nationwide are white," Alexander explains, "three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino."
Why is there such a disparity? The war on drugs has been fought in urban communities of color. Despite reliable data that shows drug use (which would logically include drug selling) is highest in rural America, the war on drugs has not been fought on this terrain. Urban communities of color have borne the brunt of America's failed war on drugs and the subsequent effects of mass incarceration.
The problems of mass incarceration do not end at the prison walls. There are 7.3 million people under correctional control above and beyond the 2.3 million behind bars. A person labeled a criminal can lose citizenship rights. Mass incarceration has led to increased political disenfranchisement for African-Americans: One in seven African-American men has lost the right to vote, and in some states that rate is one in four.
In addition, the Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Through redistricting, mass incarceration has provided increased political power to largely white and rural regions where prisons are built. Many states bar felons from jury service for life; Alexander estimates that 30 percent of African-American men have a lifetime ban from jury service. A criminal record can legally exclude a person from public benefits, including educational, food and housing assistance.
Mass incarceration threatens the country's fiscal health, our democracy and our belief in equality. We must end it. We need to think beyond prisons as economic development. We need to stop investing taxpayer dollars in failed policies and failed institutions. Ending mass incarceration can better focus investment in institutions — schools, early childhood education, drug and alcohol treatment, housing and job programs — that are vital to America's future and more effectively address social problems.
A good start would be the passage of Sen. Webb's legislation for a bipartisan commission to study the problem of mass incarceration.
Grounded in his views on love and forgiveness, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that systems of inequality rely on "conscientious blindness" and indifference. There are alternatives to prisons, and we cannot be indifferent to ending mass incarceration.
Jess Rigelhaupt is an assistant professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington. Readers may send him email at jmrumw.edu. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.
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