Thursday, February 28, 2008

The 1% Crisis

Don't let the title make you think this is a tiny issue. The Pew Center on the States has come out with a report that has found that more than 1% of the U.S. adult population is in jail or prison. Unbelievable. We have 230 million adults in this country, and over 2.3 million of them are behind bars. And where is the money coming from? We cut taxes, and funding for the arts, and for health care, and for research, and for everything else you can imagine. But we spend money on building more prisons to incarcerate people for longer and longer and longer.

I once had a professor who said that no elected representative was ever voted out of office for being to tough on crime. And what puts people behind bars more than anything? Drugs. Murderers have the lowest recidivism rate of any crime (with the notable exception of serial killers, but they never get out once they are caught anyway). But drug users, who commit an almost victimless crime, will be in and out of prisons for their entire adult life. Why? Because we don't like what they put into their bodies. Heroin was once prescribed to clear the skin. Today, it can get you locked up for years. I wonder how many of that 1% are veterans?

We have the largest prison population in the world. We have the largest per capita prison population. Who joins us in the top 10? Russia and the old Soviet Bloc. Another list that we should feel extremely proud to be on, along with that list that includes China, and Saudi Arabia, and our good friend Iran. I refer, of course, to the list of countries with the death penalty.

What a terrible thought. The politics of imprisonment is a harsh one, indeed.