We’re No. 1!

— In Prisoners. BREAK out the bunting. Uncork the champaign. It’s time to party. We’re No. 1! It has been a long, enormously costly struggle, but after nearly 30 years of steadily increasing rates, we’ve finally passed Russia and now can boast that we have a larger percentage of our population in prison than any other nation in the world. This is an impressive achievement, considering the competition, but yes, we’ve passed even Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, all major players in the big leagues of imprisonment.


— In Prisoners. BREAK out the bunting. Uncork the champaign. It’s time to party. We’re No. 1! It has been a long, enormously costly struggle, but after nearly 30 years of steadily increasing rates, we’ve finally passed Russia and now can boast that we have a larger percentage of our population in prison than any other nation in the world. This is an impressive achievement, considering the competition, but yes, we’ve passed even Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, all major players in the big leagues of imprisonment.

Impressive as our achievement is, modesty and fidelity to fact compel an admission that we don’t owe the achievement entirely to our own effort. Russia’s prisons had become so packed, and the nation is so broke it can’t afford more, that the parliament recently declared a partial amnesty that released some 120,000 prisoners.

That let us edge ahead and, of course, being the Richie Rich of nations, we don’t even bother to look at the price tag when still another prison is pushed in Congress or a state legislature. Indeed, private operators are building prisons on speculation, confident that the lawmakers and judges will soon enough fill the cells profitably, as in fact they reliably do.

So where the Russians now have 675 out of every 100,000 of their folks behind bars, we have 690. And among major nations, to find No. 3 you have to drop down to South Africa’s 400 prisoners per 100,000. Our rates are between five and eight times those of Canada and most of western Europe, according to The Sentencing Project, which tracks this sort of thing.

The fad in mandatory sentencing, and especially the fad in mandatory and long-term sentences for drug offenses, has swelled prison populations massively in recent years. We had 330,000 behind bars in 1972. By the end of last year, we were holding 1,890,000. Drug offenses account for 21 percent of state incarcerations and 58 percent of federal. There are, overall, about 470,000 Americans — few of them violent — either awaiting trial or doing time for drug charges.

It would be one thing if imprisonment worked to end drug use, but despite locking up offenders wholesale, the problem remains so severe we’re about to get ourselves embroiled in what amounts to a civil war in Colombia because of drugs. Most studies suggest we could cut drug use more, and at about half the cost, by medicalizing rather than criminalizing the issue, but our politics won’t hear of it.

In fact, the whole link between prison and crime in general is at best dubious.

Arecent study for the The Sentencing Project found that the 20 states with the highest incarceration increases between 1991-98 — averaging 72 percent – — saw their crime go down 13 percent. But crime fell 17 percent in 30 states averaging only 30 percent incarceration increases.

We pay a steep social price for our mass imprisonment of the nonviolent — in broken families, fatherless children, lowered incomes, undermined family formation, disenfranchised citizens.

Sometimes being No. 1 isn’t all it is cracked up to be.

Author: Tom Teepen

News Service: Media Awareness Project

URL: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v00/n1599/a01.html?104