Freedom and Justice For All? Part 1
2 August, 2009
“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates his duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
-Thomas Paine, Rights of Man
We, as a nation, take pride in the fact that our country was founded on the ideals of justice and the protection of liberty. In reality, we incarcerate more citizens than any other nation in the world—5 times more on average. The United States claims 25% of the world’s incarcerated people, yet we have less than 5% of the world’s population. Keeping such a vast number of people behind bars costs the American taxpayers $68 billion dollars a year.
The percentage of our population in prison exceeds that of Russia & China combined, and we incarcerate up to seven times more often than our western allies. In addition, we are the only nation in the world to mete out decades-long prison sentences to adolescent and pre-adolescent offenders. In doing so we violate international law and ignore international norms.
Some might assume that our high incarceration rate, as compared with that of other countries, is due to a higher crime rate. Not so. The U.S. incarcerates more people per incident of crime than other counties. There is no correlation between crime rate and incarceration rate in the United States.
Senator Jim Webb and his staff have been researching the justice and prison systems in the U.S. for two years. His conclusion? “America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace.”
- We currently have 2.3 Million people behind bars
- Children as young as 12 are being tried as adults and receiving multi-decade or life sentences to be served out in adult prisons
- 1 in every 31 adults in the U.S. is either in prison or on supervised release
- There are 4 times as many mentally ill people in prison as there are in psychiatric hospitals
- African-Americans are more than 6 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites; Latinos are twice as likely
- Nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for drug offenses have no history of violence and were not accused of selling drugs.
How We Got Here
According to research conducted by Christopher Hartney and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) the trend over the last 30 years has been for the US to “…rely on imprisonment as its response to all types of crime.”
Three elements have significantly contributed to this trend over the past three decades:
In the 1970s, the ‘Rockefeller Drug Laws’ were enacted in New York. In an effort to deter would-be users, and to isolate those who were caught possessing drugs, these laws promised severe punishment for substance abuse and included mandatory sentences for even first-time, non-violent offenders. A cascade of harsher drug sentences across the United States ensued.
In the 1980s Americans became increasingly anxious about crime. The media sensationalized isolated, but heinous, crimes, contributing to this anxiety. In turn, politicians crafted increasingly punitive initiatives. This led to laws such as Mandatory Minimum sentencing, “Three Strikes”, and other such legislation. The result was longer sentences and an increased number of arrests for an ever-widening range of offenses.
Prison guard associations have grown powerful. For the most part, prior to 1982 Prison Guard Unions had the limited role of advocating for the rights and benefits of their members. In the 80s, guards had a falling out with the labor movement, and guard associations emerged to fill the void. The associations have been committed to a far broader agenda than were their union predecessors. According to reporter, Adam Doster, “[The associations] staunchly protect their workers while appealing to lawmakers who are receptive to ‘tough on crime’ legislation that might prove profitable down the road.” It appears that they have been successful in their efforts to lobby for laws that will effectively increase the number of people in prison.
Over time the combination of these factors has given rise to a very powerful prison-industrial complex which vigorously advocates for tougher laws, more punitive sentencing, and the building of additional prisons.
A Push For Reform
Senator Webb has concluded that, “We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long…”
Watch for Part 2 detailing prison reform efforts in the United States