Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Land of the Unfree

America’s Great Recession may have a silver lining.  States facing revenue shortfalls are being forced to re-evaluate the astronomical incarceration rates that make the United States the prison capital of the world.

Paradoxically, the “land of the free” has more people living behind bars than China, Russia, or other hardline regimes, 737 inmates per 100,000 of total population. Many of these jailbirds are non-violent offenders sentenced on drug-related charges.  Many of them are mentally ill, warehoused rather than treated.  And disproportionate numbers of them are poor and black.  Confined to a cage for years, these men and women are torn from their families, isolated and from their communities, and tutored by the professional thugs who are there for more violent crimes.  This is not only a disgrace and human tragedy, but a huge waste of taxpayer’s money.

Lovely little Vermont, one of the safest, most sheltered backwaters anywhere, saw its prison population double between 1996 and 2006, shooting up 80% as national incarceration rates climbed just 18% over the same decade.  Prison spending in the budget-strapped state rose more steeply than the slope of Mt. Mansfield, a 45 degree incline.  

Yesterday, however,  the Governor’s office released a report recommending Vermont’s prisons reduce their numbers--that furloughs be expanded and more home supervision substitute for jail time.  It’s a step in the right direction and long overdue.  A report prepared in 2008 showed it costs over $45,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up in the Green Mountain State.  That’s about the cost of tuition, room and board at an Ivy League College.

Economic hard times are causing Americans everywhere to re-evaluate their spending.  If this round of belt-tightening can push the United States toward a saner prison policy, it will almost be worth a bust in the business cycle.

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