America's incarceration rate has grown to a level that is unacceptable from both moral and fiscal perspectives.
by Austin Raynor
The United States has one of the most the most expansive, punitive and expensive criminal justice systems in the world. Although Americans account for only five percent of the world’s population, imprisoned U.S. citizens account for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. The median incarceration rate worldwide is roughly one-sixth of the American incarceration rate.
A full one percent of the American adult population is behind bars. Including those on parole or probation increases this figure to over three percent. The U.S. incarcerates a far greater number of people than China, whose population is four times the size of ours. As a percentage of population, we imprison five times more people than Britain and 12 times more than Japan.
The United States’ approach to criminal justice has not always been so punitive. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in the early 19th century that “[i]n no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.” But with the tough-on-crime approach and the exploding drug war in the second half of the 20th century, incarceration rates have rapidly escalated.
Two main factors contribute to America’s ballooning prison population: excessive mandatory minimum sentencing laws and paternalistic and overreaching legislation.
The lengths of prison sentences in America, largely the result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, are unconscionable. Were it not for outrageous sentences, America would be nowhere near the top of the incarceration rate list: several European countries, for instance, deal out more convictions, but with shorter sentences.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are appealing to legislators terrified of appearing soft on crime, but their net effect is to remove the discretion of judges to tailor punishments to fit the crime. Under California’s “three strikes” rule, for instance, 3,700 petty, nonviolent offenders are currently serving life terms.
Rigid sentencing laws not only tend to be excessively punitive, but frequently distort the priorities of the criminal justice system, resulting in outcomes in which, for instance, nonviolent drug offenders can sometimes receive lengthier sentences than those convicted of more serious crimes, such as manslaughter.
Criminalization of a wide array of previously non-criminal actions also accounts for a large portion of America’s astronomical incarceration rate. Many of these laws are paternalistic in nature (drug prohibition, for instance) but many merely embody more punitive approaches to offenses that, in the past, were considered trivial enough not to warrant jail time (e.g., writing a bad check).
The drug war is responsible for a staggering percentage of total incarceration. Fifty-five percent of federal prisoners and 20 percent of state prisoners are locked up for drug offenses. The costs are astonishing: aggregate federal and state spending on drug prohibition is close to $50 billion annually.
America’s penal system is broken from both fiscal and moral standpoints. From a fiscal perspective, current incarceration rates are unsustainable. The annual federal prison budget is approximately $6.5 billion; the annual aggregate state prison budget is approximately $50 billion. According to a Pew Foundation study, 44 states have accrued debt merely in order to sustain their prison systems.
Fiscal issues may be the driving force that puts a halt to runaway incarceration rates. Many states—California most notably (where annual spending per prisoner tops $50,000)—are simply releasing prisoners before their sentences expire because of lack of prison space. Other states are reducing mandatory sentences or abolishing them altogether for certain classes of crimes.
The American prison system is also morally objectionable. Sentencing guidelines frequently violate the retributivist proportionality standard. This standard reflects the societal consensus that the punishment should fit the crime. For instance, if cutting the hands off of thieves would effectively deter theft, most people would still agree that the practice is immoral.
However, many of our criminal laws violate the proportionality standard in a similar way. Imprisoning a nonviolent drug user for fifteen years is outrageously disproportional. By punishing an individual to a degree greater than he deserves, we are in effect committing a crime against that individual.
Paternalistic criminal laws are also morally repugnant. Punishing mentally competent adults for failure to care for themselves demonstrates the government’s utter disregard for human autonomy and personal responsibility. Not only is it an unjust interference in individuals’ personal lives, it also encourages child-like dependence on government to enforce norms of conduct.
Criminal sanctions should be reserved for only the most grievous offenses, and, even then, they should be proportionate to the offense. Apart from execution, imprisonment is the most serious deprivation of liberty that a government can impose and as such should be dispensed sparingly and with the greatest of care. These moral concerns, coupled with the nation’s dire fiscal state, constitute a compelling basis for penal reform.
Negotiating Face in Vietnam: American Neorealism and Face-Negotiation Theory - Kimberly Ruff
Liberty or Death - Austin Raynor
Incarceration Nation - Richard Sutton
Jillian Galloway, on 9/20/2010 at 10:07am, said:
We need to demand laws based on logic and reality rather than on irrational fears of what might theoretically happen!
850,000 people were arrested last year for marijuana offenses while at the same time marijuana use went **up** by 8%. We taxpayers get *nothing* back for the $40 billion a year we pay for the prohibition!
Keeping marijuana in Schedule I alongside heroin diverts $10 billion a year to the sadistic, murderous cartels and undermines all the hard work of parents to keep our kids away from dangerous drugs. We need to speak up and demand marijuana be controlled with the same laws as alcohol!
Thomas K, on 9/20/2010 at 6:12pm, said:
"The United States has one of the most the most expansive, punitive and expensive criminal justice systems in the world."
Exactly correct! Old news but always good to see it brought up again. Everyone knows it, and it seems that anyone at all interested in criminal justice reform up to and including Senator Jim Webb, has written about it. You see the same words on almost every blog dealing with criminal justice issues yet little to nothing is being done to correct the situation.
You say that,"Two main factors contribute to America’s ballooning prison population: excessive mandatory minimum sentencing laws and paternalistic and overreaching legislation." I agree completely but would like to suggest another. That factor is the government itself. Specifically and especially the federal government when discussing first time felony offenders. The collateral consequences of a federal felony offense are forever no matter the "degree", for lack of a better word, of the offense. The most heinous violent offender and the first time non-violent offender are treated the same. Think Charles Manson and Martha Stewart. No difference in the eyes of the government. Any citizen who thinks that an ex-offender who has "paid their full debt to society" is free to resume a normal life is sadly mistaken. The worst roadblocks to an ex-offender's rehabilitation and return to society as a productive citizen are placed in his/her path by the very same government that spends millions of taxpayer dollars on re-entry programs and then decries the high recidivism rate.
You go onto say, "By punishing an individual to a degree greater than he deserves, we are in effect committing a crime against that individual." Again, you are exactly right and under current law, an ex-offender with a federal felony conviction is condemned to suffer what amounts to a civil death penalty. What is the answer you may ask? Many states have a path by which certain first time offenders may seek expunction of their criminal record. The federal system has no such provision.
For more than eight years, Congressman Charles Rangel has introduced legislation that would remedy this miscarriage of justice. Since the year 2000, the Congressman has introduced six versions of his "second Chance for Ex-offenders Act" only to see them all fail to make it out of committee. The most recent, H.R.1529 seems about to suffer the same fate and this time it may be somewhat due to the Congressman's own problems.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee has introduced H.R.5492 the "Fresh Start Act of 2010", effectively replacing H.R.1529.H.R.5492 allow certain first time non-violent offenders who meet all of the requirements set forth in the bill to make application to the original sentencing court for expungement of their criminal record. H.R. 5492 is similar in many ways to the legislation introduced by Congressman Rangel but is better in that it offers incentives to the individual states to follow the federal expungement guidelines within their own jurisdictions. The legislation also has a provision that if an applicant's petition to the court is denied, he/she may reply after a two-year wait and after seven years the expungement is automatic. The full text of this most important legislation may be read @ http://bit.ly/9UWvPR.
Petitions supporting this legislation are available @ Care2 Petition Site: http://bit.ly/bqYI1W, Change.org: http://bit.ly/dcssOz and Petition2Congress: http://bit.ly/bkDauy.
Please sign these petitions and further support this legislation by calling your Congressman today.
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I'm worried that eventually I'll get caught up in the next witch hunt. There is too much religion and/or corruption that is driving our political system. I'm not willing to give up my freedom so that the pharmaceutical company can sell more of their poison or that a politician can get more contributions from the private prison industry.
I've had it. I'm leaving. As soon as I sell my house I have a job waiting for me in another country. Yes, the government will probably take more money in taxes but at least I won't have to worry about being dragged off to prison for yet another new law passed in the middle of the night by some grandstanding politician.
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Body snatchers! That is what I call them. Remember George Bush 1st told everyone in a speech given at his desk at the oval office in '89 that we are going on a building spree to stimulate the prison based economic system of small rural republican based constituencies. People being the tax based fodder that feed these economic prison machines, have you any wonder WHY our prison populations have exploded over the past ten years? And, further, do you have any wonder why Cannabis is still illegal in this country? Now, that's an easy 'body snatch' for sure!
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