Friday, July 16, 2010

U. S. Incarceration

by Richard Crews
The United States has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. The U.S. incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any other country in the world--including Russia, China, and Cuba. It incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other democracy or dictatorship; more than any Asian, African, or European nation; more than any long-standing government or new, emerging one.

Compared with other leading, industrialized, first-world countries such as the U.K., Germany, France, Canada, or Japan, the U.S. incarcerates a ten-times higher proportion of its citizens than any of those countries.

Last year the U.S. passed an alarming milestone: there are now more than three million U.S. citizens under restraint within the multi-teered (federal, state, and local) penal systems. This amounts to roughly one in every one hundred of our fellow citizens.

Why? There are essentially two reasons: First--sentences in the U.S. tend to be much longer than those for comparable crimes in other first-world countries. A crime such as bank robbery which typically draws a sentence of 6 to 12 months in many European countries may call for a sentence of 15 to 20 years in the U.S. Second--the vast majority of incarcerated U.S. citizens are being held for so-called "non-violent" or "victimless" crimes. In fact, most are for drug-related offenses.

The U.S. once tried a terrible experiment in prohibition. From 1920 to 1933 the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the U.S. Despite massive enforcement efforts, beer, wine, and whiskey continued to be readily available throughout the U.S.; organized crime flourished on the profits. The current situation with regard to illegal drugs is comparable to this prohibition experience.

Today, there are several places in the world where drugs are legal--the personal use and transport of small quantities of narcotics is not against the law. Contrary to popular predictions, this has not led to tourist-drug havens nor to significant public or personal health problems. But a politicized culture of fear has led to harsh anti-drug legislation and sentencing practices throughout the U.S.

This has led to an overcrowding of the prison systems. In conjunction with this there is little rehabilitation--neither education nor resocialization efforts--within the systems. Moreover, even after release, an ex-felon often has trouble finding a job or a place to live since most employers will not hire an ex-felon and many landlords will not rent to someone with a prison record. In many places there are even laws restricting employment, housing, or other activities of ex-felons--near schools, for example. So in addition to having been isolated and kept out of touch with cultural and technology changes--perhaps for many years--ex-felons are stigmatized and restricted in attempts to rejoin society.

What needs to be done? Three things.

* First, laws need to be changed so that the prohibition against personal transport and use of drugs is repealed. In addition, harsh sentencing practices for illegal manufacturers and dealers should be revised.

* Second, there should be extensive education, job training, and other rehabilitation and socialization programs for anyone in jail; the economics (tax and program funding aspects) of this turn out to be surprisingly favorable.

* Third, there should be extensive, positive job, housing, and other programs to help ex-felons rejoin society after discharge. In addition to programs in road and parkland maintenance, there are many activities within recycling, "remanufacture" (of damaged and recycled items), organic and community gardens, and other fields which could provide valuable services to the community at large, could offer ex-felons gainful employment (at menial up through administrative and high-level jobs), and would not compete unreasonably with commercial businesses.