When will the U.S. stop mass incarceration? (CNN)

The United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, including China which has four times our population, or in human history. And now, a new Pew report announces that we are keeping even nonviolent inmates behind bars for increasingly longer terms.

This comes at a time when soaring costs of prisons are wreaking havoc on federal, state and local budgets, as schools, libraries, parks and social programs are slashed. When I graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1983, my state spent more on higher education than prisons, a lot more. That equation is now reversed. Money that could have gone into reducing skyrocketing tuition and cuts to education has instead gone to prisons and inmates.

Over the past 23 years, California constructed roughly one new prison per year, at a cost of $100 million each, while it built only one new public college during the same period. Nationwide, spending on prisons has risen six times faster than spending on higher education.

As I protest education cuts, I’m so often told, “We just don’t have the money.” It’s a lie. We do have the money. We just choose to spend it on prisons.

Why is this not a front and center issue in the presidential campaign?

Largely casualties of our misguided “war on drugs,” and vigorously promoted at the federal level by the “drug czar” and a $15 billion annual budget, the number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled since 1980.

More than two million of our people are now locked up, with another nearly five million under an increasingly restrictive system of correctional control in lieu of or after incarceration. Criminalizing human behavior like never before, our judges are required by law to mete out increasingly punitive, long sentences, even for children. Even after inmates are released, they remain under the heavy-handed and pricey control of the criminal justice system for years or for life, often legally barred from voting, receiving public housing, food stamps or student loans.

Forced to “check the box” on job applications that they are convicted criminals, even those who have had simple convictions like marijuana possession are often legally discriminated against by employers.

An unemployed young man recently wrote to me about being shut out of his dream job, nursing, because of a decade-old marijuana offense. In fact, no one at all will hire him. As he languishes on a friend’s couch, he is hopeless, depressed and suicidal.

In the United States, one man out of eighteen is incarcerated or on probation or parole, and more are locked up every day. We are the last developed country on the planet to lock up juveniles, overwhelmingly boys, for life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were minors. (Though the Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors in June, judges may still impose the sentence as a discretionary matter.)

Here’s one stark way to understand our new normal of mass incarceration: If we wanted to return to 1970s level of incarceration, we’d have to release four out of five people behind bars today.

Nonviolent offenders are 60% of our prison population. Releasing half of them would free up nearly $17 billion per year for schools or other worthy programs, with no appreciable effect on the crime rate. In fact, many studies conclude that mass incarceration is crimogenic, i.e., locking up people for minor offenses increases crime because they become hardened behind bars. Since few prisons offer therapy or vocational programs and children left behind in fatherless homes are more likely to grow up to become offenders themselves, the problem just gets worse.

But we cannot keep going down the road of locking up more people for longer amounts of time. According to Pew, prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36% longer, than offenders released in 1990. Annually we now spend $68 billion and growing on local, state and federal corrections.

The American public strongly supports reducing time served for nonviolent offenders. But candidates appear afraid to touch this touchy third rail issue, for fear they appear less than “tough on crime.”

Why does the right not consider our multibillion-dollar prison system to be the type of bloated government program ripe for cost-cutting?

Why is the left so rarely concerned about the warehoused young lives and the destruction of inner city families from our culture of mass incarceration?

Why do both sides accept the framing of this question, so often parroted: In these tough economic times, should we cut more social services or raise taxes? It’s a false dichotomy. The third alternative is to stop warehousing our own people.

6 thoughts on “When will the U.S. stop mass incarceration? (CNN)

  1. The problem of mass incarceration includes a lot more than the amount of non violent prisoners. The whole judicial system needs a complete reform. Innocence projects around this country are just now getting a rough estimate of the amount of innocent people that are pushed through a corrupt system and then incarcerated for a crime they never committed. It’s actually very easy with the network of public investigators tied into the local prosecution system with absolutely no transparency to the crime that they commit by charging and prosecuting an innocent person. It is accepted behavior on the court systems of North Carolina to completely fabricate evidence and testify under oath to a judge that has areadly pre-arranged a sentence to keep his voters. There is no due process, no factual basis, and it is O.K. for a State official to destroy the defendants only evidence. If you are charged in North Carolina with a crime, you are guilty until proven innocent. My daughter is currently incarcerated for being the only survivor in a car accident where three people lost their lives. She was not the driver and the State Highway Patrol destroyed and fabricated the entire case. The public believes that these officials are honest and good people. I pray they never come to the reality of how they really are. The more they convict, the higher up the ladder they go. See wwww.freemandy.net and you be the judge.

  2. Tyranny….coming to your neighborhood soon. Plea deals, mandatory minimum sentences, parole all help to keep young men locked into the system. Law enforcement is punishing arrestees before trail by releasing arrest information to the media. Mug shots and details of arrest are published online forever resulting in denial of employment to those either accused or convicted of crimes. Benefits of expungment have been nullified. The Bill of Rights have been nullified. A citizen can be arrested without probable cause, jailed indefinately without being charged with a crime, and can be held without and access to council. Unarmed citizens are being gunned down by police. Family pets are routinely murdered in their own yards by swat teams and police. We have more citizens incarcerated than any other nation has. What could possibly happen that would serve as a wake up call to the citizens of this country? Why isn’t there more action on the part of judges and lawyers? We are leaving our children with a terrible legacy and an even worse future. God help us.

  3. Here is another frightening fact to consider when discussing this issue. Far too many prisoners never learned how to read. While the general public complains about the cost of providing special education for students who qualify, they have no qualms about carting these same young people off to jail. We need to stop being so short sighed. Is it costly to provide special education services? Yes it is. However, it is A LOT more expensive to keep these same people in jail for decades at a time. Our entire prison system needs a major overhaul yesterday.

  4. To say nothing of the financial/moral/human rights abuses/civil rights abuse fraud involved in most involuntary “civil” commitments–hich is just the way the mental health system wishes to rip off everyone at the expense of all on the altar of “caring” for the “mentailly ill:”. This has lead to tyranny in the healthcare system and throughout the healthcare system, hypocrisy in international relations between the United States and the rest of the world, and an enforced ignoranace by refusing to disseminate the truth about all of this by the media.

  5. One of those unjustly incarcerated is Elsa Newman. Like Marissa Alexander, Elsa continues to assert her innocence and the prosecutor in her two trials wrote to deny Elsa parole because she still asserts her innocence. I’m sure you know that every year family courts in the U.S. place 58,000 children in the unsupervised care of their abusers. (The Leadership Council) The children of Elsa Newman have been in their abusive father’s care for over 12 years now. Meanwhile Elsa is in custody for a crime she didn’t commit and Maryland’s highest court acknowledged there was no evidence to tie her to the crime. (I can give you citations). Yet powerful forces put her in prison and keep her there. A lot of us want to see this tragedy eviscerated. Essentially she is in prison because she stood up for her children in family court. Her young children refused to visit their father during the divorce. Experts confirmed the children’s complaints of severe abuse. The children were honest. Elsa was the good mother we expect. A family court got it all wrong and their brethren in the local criminal court allowed a vicious prosecutor to scapegoat Elsa with the same myths and stereotypes used in family court, only now Elsa was charged as a co-conspirator in another individual’s crime. The other individual refused the prosecutor’s offer of leniency and honestly testified Elsa was not involved in the crime. But those myths and stereotypes, that gender bias, enabled a ruthless prosecutor to gain a conviction in a second trial after the first was thrown out for major errors. Her case lingers on in the court system of a small state where, I think, it is not too much of a stretch to say everyone knows everyone. Elsa was denied parole because she still asserts her innocence. Please help any way you can.
    Margaret Candler
    Citizens for Fairness and Justice

  6. The question is very strange. Let me rephrase it – “When will individuals stop going insane?” I am pretty sure the answer is obvious. U.S. is a corporation and as a governing body of a human farm over specific geopgraphical area it can do whatever it wants to do. Same like individuals can dig in their nose searching for “natural resources”, nobody can stop you doing that.

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