Thursday, February 28, 2008

Prison Nation

A source I used in Tuesday’s item about Corrections Corp. shill Gustavus Adolphus Puryear IV mentioned this country’s “incarceration boom” -- a phrase that took me aback. I wanted to explore this issue further. Well, wouldn’t you know, today Pew Research has a study on this very topic.

It’s disturbing, to say the least:
1 in 100 Americans Are Behind Bars, Study Says

Published: February 28, 2008

For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.

Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.

Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 is behind bars, but that one in 100 black women is.

Wow. That’s just astonishing. Think about it: of 100 adults you personally know, at least one of those people will have served time in the criminal justice system.

I thought about it and realized: yes, I know one of those people! I have a good friend whose punishment for their second DUI offense included serving time in jail.

What is going on here? A nation with incarceration rates this high needs to do some serious soul-seaching.

Are we breaking more laws than before? Do we really have this many "bad" people? Or are we locking people up for violations that really don’t warrant incarceration? Is this the inevitable result of decades of “tough on crime” talk from politicians and the media?

The article goes on:

The Pew report recommended diverting nonviolent offenders away from prison and using punishments short of reincarceration for minor or technical violations of probation or parole. It also urged states to consider earlier release of some prisoners.

I know that law-and-order types get in a tizzy over the idea of early release for some prisoners, but something isn’t working here.

Who is benefiting--besides CCA, of course --from pulling so many people out of the mainstream of society and locking them up? So many of these “get tough on crime” laws haven’t served as a deterrent or made us safer. Instead, they’ve made a bunch of people feel macho and tough by doing what’s easy, not what works.

There's something seriously wrong with a country that would rather throw people in jail and forget about them, instead of fixing the social problems that cause people to break the law to begin with.