Thursday, February 28, 2008

War on drugs has prisons bulging at the seams

According to a new report from the Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 (PDF), more than 1% of all American adults are cooling their heels behind bars -- a record number. That's a staggering figure, but one that grows even more frightening when you examine specific groups. "While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine."

At a time when U.S. global leadership is being questioned in a variety of areas, there's no doubt that this country still leads in its ability to lock people up.

The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, including the far more populous nation of China. At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars, and Russia was a distant third with 890,000 inmates, according to the latest available figures. Beyond the sheer number of inmates, America also is the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry, outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the U.S, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.

Could it be that so many more Americans deserve incarceration than Chinese or Germans? Why are these people locked up?

The Pew Center blames the surge in the ranks of the imprisoned primarily on policy choices. Examining Florida, for instance, the report says:

While crime and a growing resident population play a role, most of the growth, analysts agree, stemmed from a host of correctional policies and practices adopted by the state. One of the first came in 1995, when the legislature abolished “good time” credits and discretionary release by the parole board, and required that all prisoners—regardless of their crime, prior record, or risk to recidivate—serve 85 percent of their sentence. Next came a “zero tolerance” policy and other measures mandating that probation officers report every offender who violated any condition of supervision and increasing prison time for these “technical violations.” As a result, the number of violators in Florida prisons has jumped by an estimated 12,000.

These numbers seem to hold up across the country. In California, "A 2005 study showed that more than two-thirds of parolees in the Golden State were returned to prison within three years of release; of those, 39 percent were due to technical violations."

OK. But that doesn't tell us what brought this teeming mass of inmates to the attention of the justice system to begin with. What did they do that would make them subject to policy decisions about parole and probation? If we have a disproportionate ratio of the world's rapists, robbers and murderers in this country, maybe we need all of that expensive prison capacity.

Unfortunately, the Pew report just doesn't go there. It talks about parole, probation, long prison sentences and the high costs of incarceration. But the document steadfastly avoids addressing the overwhelming reason U.S. government officials incarcerate so many of the people subject to their authority: the war on drugs.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice itself sounded a warning in An Analysis of Non-violent Drug Offenders with Minimal Criminal Histories:

Using one set of criteria which limited offenders to no current or prior violence in their records, no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity and no prior commitment, there were 16,316 Federal prisoners who could be considered low-level drug law violators. They constituted 36.1 percent of all drug law offenders in the prison system and 21.2 percent of the total sentenced Federal prison population.

By 2003, those numbers had grown dramatically. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported:

Experts say mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, are a major reason inmate populations have risen for 30 years. About one of every 143 U.S. residents was in the federal, state or local custody at year's end. ...

Drug offenders now make up more than half of all federal prisoners. The federal penal system, which has tough sentencing policies for drug offenses, is now the nation's largest at more than 151,600 – an increase of 4.2 percent compared with 2001.

Simple drug possession convictions make up about 5% of the federal prison population drug offenders in federal prisons and about 27% of the state prison population drug offenders in the state prison population*, according to the federal government's own figures. Other nonviolent drug offenders were charged with nothing more than "sale or intent to sell" illegal intoxicants to willing buyers.

The legal system's reach into American life -- largely as a result of drug prohibition -- extends even farther than the Pew Center figures would indicate. In Probation and Parole in the United States 2006 (PDF), the Justice Department revealed that "About 3.2% of the U.S. adult population, or 1 in every 31 adults, were incarcerated or on probation or parole at yearend 2006."

That means that police, courts and prison authorities currently play a significant role in the lives of a shockingly high percentage of the adult population. And most of those unfortunate people are subject to loss of liberty and government supervision because they like to get high or want make a few bucks by helping other people get high. If their choice of "cocktails" were different, we'd call them bar patrons and bartenders.

So, thanks, Pew Center, for the wake-up call about the insane U.S. incarceration rate. And thanks, too, for the suggestions about parole, probation and sentencing guidelines.

But, if we want to step back from the brink of making America a land of convicts and ex-cons, we'll have to declare an end to the oppressive and brutal war on drugs.

*Thanks to Thorley Winston who pointed out in the comments that I had misstated the numbers. We are, of course, still talking about nonviolent "criminals" who engaged in victimless activity.

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Blogger Thorley Winston said...

Simple drug possession convictions make up about 5% of the federal prison population and about 27% of the state prison population, according to the federal government's own figures.

I hate to be a stickler for facts but that’s not what the link you provided actually says:

“Actually, only 5 percent of inmates in federal prison on drug charges are incarcerated for drug possession. In our state prisons, it’s somewhat higher—about 27% of drug offenders.”

There’s a pretty big difference between 5% of the total federal prison population and 5% of the prison population that was incarcerated on just drug charges. You may want to correct that as at least one rather prominent blogger has erroneously relied on this incorrect statement.

February 28, 2008 5:00 PM  
Blogger mnuez said...

Here's my choice:

Try and fry every single violent criminal you can get your hands on... AFTER you've restructured society so that half its population doesn't live in the shit. When we've got no billionaires and no homeless people, healthcare clothing housing and education for all, and an economic system that doesn't terribly favor the lucky (whether with wealthy parents, or brains or anything else) at the excruciating expense of the unlucky, then torturing all violent criminals to death is just fine with me. But there won't be many of them.


February 29, 2008 1:48 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


Thanks for the heads-up. You're right -- I misstated the numbers, and I've since corrected the figures. We are, of course, still talking about nonviolent "criminals" who engaged in consensual activity with willing participants.

February 29, 2008 7:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael Pelletier said...

MNuez - you don't seriously think that when I get a well-paying job because I've worked and studied my ass off for the past 20 years, it's "at the excruciating expense" of the lazy self-entitled punk who made fun of me for studying in school, do you?

My brains are due to luck, what I do with them is absolutely not.

February 12, 2009 10:13 AM  
Blogger mnuez said...

Deal. I'll add "lazy self-entitled punk who made fun of me for studying in school" to the list of people we fry. Strawmen are awesome!

You should thank your god or your lucky stars for your brains and various inherited or luck-of-th

what the hell am I doing. this thread is a year old. fuck it, believe what you want to believe.

February 12, 2009 10:24 AM  
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^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 18, 2009 11:52 PM  

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