Thursday, November 6, 2008

Incarceration Milestone

According to The New York Times, the U.S. achieved a milestone earlier this year. The incarceration rate in the U.S. has been high and growing for decades; in February 2008 it passed 3,000,000. This means that 1 in 100 U.S. citizens are behind bars.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.
The second highest country, Russia, has a rate about 2/3 as high.
And our peers, European countries, Canada, and Mexico have rates about 1/10 as high.

Moreover, most of the U.S. citizens behind bars are there for non-violent crimes.
In fact, most of the U.S. citizens behind bars are there for drug-related offenses.

It is appalling to realize that the E.U. has 100 million more citizens than the U.S., yet the U.S. locks up 100,000 more of its citizens for drug offenses alone than the E.U. does for all offenses.

The fiscal impact is staggering.
$40 billion was spent on prisons and jails in the U.S. in 2000.
Of that, $24 billion was spent to incarcerate non-violent offenders.
Several states (including CA and NY) have larger budgets for prisons than for education.

But the price is not just fiscal. Consider the impact on society of millions of people out of the workforce, out of their communities, cared for by taxpayers. And not just while they are incarcerated, but afterward as well because they are under-trained and under-educated, out of step with social changes, and stigmatized legally and socially.

On Sept. 14, 2008 The New York Times ran an interesting article about disenfranchisement of ex-felons. The following is quoted from it.

“ 'I can’t vote because I got three felonies,' Mr. Benton told Ms. Bell. He had finished a six-month sentence for possession of $600 worth of crack cocaine, he said. But Ms. Bell had good news for him: The Florida Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, changed the rules last year to restore the voting rights of about 112,000 former convicts.

“ 'After you go to prison — you do your time and they still take all your rights away,' Mr. Benton said as he filled out a form to register. 'You can’t get a job. You can’t vote. You can’t do nothing even 10 or 20 years later. You don’t feel like a citizen. You don’t even feel human.'

"Felony disenfranchisement — often a holdover from exclusionary Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests — affects about 5.3 million former and current felons in the United States, according to voting rights groups."

The harshness of sentencing practices and the incarceration of such a large fraction of our U.S. population is an embarrassment and blight on our national reputation; a violation of our most deeply held ideals and self-image as the "land of the free," a beacon of civil liberties around the world; and source of personal tragedy for many millions of our fellow citizens.

It is an important problem. What can we do about it?

Source: and elsewhere

Barack Obama says he is concerned about this problem and has plans to attack it. His extensive staff has made special efforts to enroll ex-felons in states where they are eligible.
John McCain has made no comment about it.