Fwd: Incarceration in America....National Journal...25oct00

Martin Zehr m_zehr at SPAMhotmail.com
Sun Oct 29 12:45:43 MST 2000

>The Issue Politicians Are Ignoring -- 2 Million Prisoners
>You don't have to be a crime-coddling wimp to see that we're putting too
>many people in prison
>by Stuart Taylor Jr.
>October 25, 2000
>The good news is that crime is no longer the divisive issue it used to be
>in national politics, which is why Al Gore and George W. Bush haven't been
>arguing about it. The bad news is the reason: Gore and most other Democrats
>have aped Republicans in demanding ever-longer prison terms, not only for
>the violent career criminals who should be behind bars, but also for
>small-time, nonviolent drug offenders and others who present no real threat
>to society.
>The number of people incarcerated in the nation's prisons and jails has
>reached an all-time high of around 2 million inmates, at a cost to
>taxpayers of some $40 billion a year. This is six times the number of
>prisoners we had in 1970, when crime rates were much lower than they are
>now. Meanwhile, the U.S. rate of incarceration has just become the highest
>on the planet, passing Russia's, according to an Oct. 9 report by the
>Sentencing Project, a group that advocates alternatives to prison. The
>current U.S. rate of 690 prisoners per 100,000 people is more than five
>times that in the United Kingdom; six times that in Canada, Australia, and
>Spain; seven times that in France and Italy; and 17 times that in Japan.
>These are astonishing numbers, although they have drawn far less media
>attention than the 70 convicted murderers who have been executed so far
>this year. This incarceration rate has an especially devastating impact on
>black men, whom we are locking up at eight times the rate for white men
>(per capita), and their families.
>But you won't catch Gore or Bush -- who seemed almost giddy during the Oct.
>11 debate about the prospect of putting some murderers to death -- saying
>that 2 million prisoners are too many, or vowing to reform this huge,
>costly, inefficient, wasteful government program. Both candidates remember
>the soft-on-crime mauling that Bush's father gave Michael Dukakis in 1988.
>And both remember how the Clinton-Gore ticket avoided a similar fate in
>1992 and 1996 by making "tough penalties" a mantra. Since then, the
>Administration has advocated drug sentences even harsher than those
>championed by Presidents Reagan and Bush and Attorney General Edwin Meese
>A political consensus has thus congealed behind the highest incarceration
>rate in U.S. history. To some extent this reflects the commonsense
>proposition that locking up dangerous criminals cuts crime. And it's true
>that the steady drop in crime rates since 1992 has coincided with the
>soaring incarceration rates. But the consensus among serious crime policy
>experts is that we have overdone it, to the point of putting away far too
>many people, for far too long, who aren't dangerous. This is the view not
>only of liberals, but also of hard-line advocates of crime-cutting through
>imprisonment such as John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania;
>James Q. Wilson, professor emeritus at UCLA; and many Reagan-appointed
>Don't take my word for it. Read what DiIulio -- a self-described "crime
>control conservative" who wants to "incarcerate the really bad guys" --
>wrote last year: "The nation has 'maxed out' on the public safety value of
>incarceration," the "pendulum has now swung too far away from traditional
>judicial discretion" in sentencing, and "there is a conservative crime
>control case to be made for repealing mandatory-minimum drug laws now." He
>called for repealing both the myriad federal mandatory sentences adopted
>since 1986 and state laws.
>Similarly, the venerable Wilson wrote two months ago (in Slate) that when
>Congress chases headlines by adopting "absurd penalties" -- such as five
>years without parole for having 5 grams (one-fifth of an ounce) of crack
>cocaine and 10 years for 2 ounces -- the results include "fill[ing] up
>prisons with people serving five-year sentences for possessing a rock, when
>people who have burgled someone's home are serving two-year sentences."
>Richard A. Posner, the Reagan-appointed chief judge of the Chicago-based
>U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, has called the federal drug
>penalties "savagely severe."
>These critics are not crime-coddling wimps. These are the tough guys. They
>understand that many drug defendants have in fact committed violent crimes
>as well. But these critics know enough to recognize when tough-on-crime
>measures have veered into irrationality. In New York, for example,
>DiIulio's research confirms that more than 25 percent of the incoming male
>prisoners and about half of the incoming female prisoners are drug
>offenders "whose only past felony crimes, [both] recorded and undetected,
>were genuinely low-level, nonviolent drug crimes."
>The simplistic notion that building more prisons is the best way to reduce
>crime is also confounded by other data: Crime rose from 1985 -- well after
>imprisonment rates had started their long climb -- to 1992. And since 1992,
>the states where crime has dropped the most have not been the ones locking
>up the most people, according to a recent study by the Sentencing Project.
>In Bush's Texas, for example, the crime rate dropped 35 percent from
>1991-98, while the imprisonment rate soared by 144 percent. But far smaller
>increases in imprisonment rates in states such as California (52 percent)
>and New York (24 percent) were accompanied by even larger reductions in
>crime (36 percent and 43 percent, respectively). Overall, the 30 states
>with the smallest hikes in incarceration rates (averaging 30 percent) had
>larger average crime reductions (17 percent) than the 20 other states where
>incarceration rates went up an average of 72 percent and crime fell by only
>an average of 13 percent.
>Any incremental crime-reduction benefits are small indeed when the prison
>binge becomes so indiscriminate as to doom some minor offenders to
>downright barbaric prison terms, such as the 25-years-to-life sentences of
>the two California men whose third "strikes" were stealing (respectively) a
>slice of pepperoni pizza and four chocolate chip cookies. Most striking is
>the fact that illegal drug sales have held steady even while the
>imprisonment of drug offenders has soared to a staggering 75 percent of all
>those entering federal prison, and 35 percent of those entering state
>prisons and jails.
>Roughly half of our 2 million prisoners are serving time for small-time
>drug deals and other nonviolent crimes such as stealing cars. Most of these
>people present no threat to society. Indeed, they are more likely to become
>dangerous if packed into prisons to be raped and schooled by predators than
>if left on the outside. These nonviolent offenders could be punished quite
>adequately with probation or brief stints of shock incarceration followed
>by parole -- especially if policy-makers follow the advice of liberal and
>conservative experts alike and put teeth into such sentences through closer
>supervision, and what DiIulio calls "coerced abstinence" from drug abuse
>monitored by mandatory drug tests.
>Keeping minor offenders out of prison would also free up billions of
>dollars for other crime-prevention efforts, such as putting more police on
>the streets and establishing more drug treatment programs. These are far
>better bets than building more prisons to produce further reductions in
>violent crime rates, which are still three times higher than the rates in
>Some had hoped that the Clinton-Gore Administration would move away from
>this unjust and wasteful overreliance on imprisonment. After all, Clinton's
>brother Roger could have spent at least five years in prison (rather than
>the 15 months he got in 1984) had his cocaine-selling violation been
>punished under the current federal statute. Instead, Clinton has seized
>every opportunity to demagogue the issue and to squelch reform efforts.
>The President has thereby aggravated a glaring social problem that he
>sometimes finds convenient to decry. Five years ago, Clinton marked the day
>of the Million Man March by saying that "something is terribly wrong" when
>almost one-third of black men in their 20s are either behind bars, on
>parole, or on probation. Two weeks later, he helped perpetuate this state
>of affairs by signing a bill blocking the U.S. Sentencing Commission's
>proposal to reduce the egregious penalties for crack cocaine defendants,
>almost all of whom are black.
>The winners of this year's federal and state elections will, unfortunately,
>have no popular mandate to stop the prison binge. Might Gore or Bush do the
>right thing anyway? It's hard to be optimistic. But if the next President
>does feel an urge to strike a blow for simple fairness and common sense, he
>could cite the assertion made 30 years ago by Bush's father, then a Texas
>Congressman, that abolishing mandatory prison terms "will result in better
>justice." Or he could disinter one of Clinton's more auspicious lines from
>1992: "We need to make sure that people who belong in prison are sent
>there, and that people who do not need to be there are not taking up
>expensive space."
>Stuart Taylor Jr. is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and
>a contributing editor at Newsweek. This column appears every week in
>National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government
>published in Washington, D.C.
>For information on National Journal Group publications, see

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