America is in danger of losing its status as the world’s biggest economy or leading manufacturer. But in the production of jails and inmates, we’re still number one. With five percent of the world’s people and twenty-five percent of its prisoners, no other nation even comes close to the U.S.A.
Whether you consider the total number incarcerated, or take a per capita approach, the statistics are appalling. For every 100,000 U.S. citizens, 751 are behind bars. In Russia, the only other country in the running, that number is 627. Massachusetts is below the national average, with 153 prisoners per 100,000 population. But in more civilized places like Norway the number is 64, or in Japan 63. Nearly one of every one hundred adults in the United States is incarcerated.
If you’re a person of color, the chances of winding up in custody are far higher. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks are about seven times more likely to wind up in prison than whites. Hispanics are roughly three times as likely as non-hispanic whites to do jail time. At each stage of the criminal justice process where discretion is involved, from the officer’s decision to arrest to a prosecutor’s choice whether to press charges, on through the trial and sentencing, and then again in the deliberations of parole boards, bias can enter in.
My wife, who is a criminal defense attorney, sees differential treatment all the time. Stealing a bike might be considered a prank when committed by a university student, but considered a crime in another neighborhood. Though the Bay State puts fewer people per capita into prison than southern states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the prison population here is even more racially skewed than in the deep South.
What drives America’s obsession with imprisoning ever greater numbers of its citizens? Partly the trend is driven by the for-profit prison industry. Over the last decade, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, the two biggest for-profit prison businesses, saw their revenues double and spent over $22 million lobbying Congress. For these companies, more penitentiaries and longer sentences mean bigger bottom lines.
Added to that, politicians continue to win elections by promising to get tough on crime. Here in Massachusetts that appears to be the case in the current legislative session, where both the House and Senate are considering bills (S. 2080 and H. 3818) to mandate life in prison without parole for anyone convicted of “three strikes.” That’s tough all right, especially when those strikes include offenses that may or may not involve violence or actual harm to the victim (like simple assault, which may involve no contact but only the threat or fear that unwanted touching might occur.) If bills like these become law, another 1,500 to 2,500 prisoners could be added to the state’s correctional system, at a projected cost of $75-125 million per year.
How much longer can we afford to see prison budgets grow, while state revenues and services decline? When will politicians and the public come to their senses? Aside from the money, the waste of life is heartbreaking, since the punishment for excessively harsh sentences falls not only on those convicted but also on their wives, children and other family members.
The Bible admonishes us to “proclaim release to the captives.” (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18). Perhaps the time has come for the United States to follow the example of almost every other civilized nation on earth and do just that.