Adrienne BoettingerTuesday,25 June 2013

The Snap:

No American politician wants to be labeled “soft on crime.” We imprison more people than any other country on earth. Suck it, Russia and Rwanda! We’re #1! China’s population may be 5x ours but we lock up 500,000 more people. Are Americans more lawless? Have we tied our judges hands with policies like mandatory minimums? When did our answer for solving difficult problems — such as mental illness, poverty, abuse, addiction — become locking up 1 in 100 of all Americans? And does this mass incarceration have anything to do with the prison industrial complex becoming a multi-billion dollar industry?

The Download:

First, let’s take a look at the numbers:

– 2.3 million people in the United States live in 6 x 8 ft. cells.

– One-fourth of all people incarcerated on this planet are in the United States, but crime rates across the country have dropped by almost 1/4 over the past 25 years.

– Nonviolent offenders make up half of the U.S. prison population.

– 100,000 inmates are juveniles.

– The state of California spends $50,000 per prisoner per year (in contrast to $9,000 on each public schoolchild per year).

– 3 years after release, 2/3 of former inmates commit some sort of crime and ½ of those end up back in jail.

So if crime rates are actually decreasing, why is the prison population rising? For-profit prisons and their successful lobbying efforts play a part. Other contributors include the war on drugs — resulting in 1.5 million convictions each year with 1/3 of those being imprisoned — and strict sentencing guidelines that lead to situations where people are sentenced to 25 years for selling less than $2,000 in painkillers. (How long of a sentence did Jack Abramoff get again?)

Clearly, locking up as many people as possible isn’t working. Unless you’re a for-profit private prison system or a politician whose campaign receives contributions from one; then it’s working just fine.

The Corrections Corporation of America is the largest for-profit prison system in the country and is celebrating its 30th year in business. CCA makes money by filling as many beds as possible. CCA prisons have been the sites of prisoner abuse, inhumane living conditions, negligence and wrongful death. Some states, like Idaho, are wising up to CCA’s record and are looking to other companies to incarcerate their residents. However, for-profit prisons are far from the only bad guy in this situation. Some of the blame rests with the Obama Administration for refusing to investigate charges of abuse, inhumane conditions, torture, and mistreatment of the mentally ill in federal prisons.

Is the answer to release all those incarcerated? Of course not. People who present a clear danger to society can’t just be set free. But neither do we have to imprison nonviolent offenders for years and years. Alternatives include community service, probation, substance abuse treatment, improved mental health care, and rehabilitation.

Take Action!

Hat Tips:

Salon, The Atlantic, Center for Research on Globalization, MapLight, Business Insider, Open Secrets, Pro Publica, Forbes, Wonkette, ACLU, White House, Prison Fellowship International, Huffington Post, Image Credit: Flickr

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