US: World's Lock-'Em-Up Leader

Crime statistics and strict sentencing policies account for the nation's high incarceration rate

MORE people, per capita, are in jail in the United States than in any other country on earth, according to a recent report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research group. It used to be that South Africa and the Soviet Union kept more of their citizens in jail than did the US - that was the finding of a landmark 1979 study on international rates of incarceration by the National Council on Crime and Deliquency. But now the US heads the list. For every 100,000 people in the US, 426 are sentenced to prison or are being held in pretrial detention. The US also imprisons black men at a rate four times higher than that of South Africa (see chart).

Rates of incarceration aren't available for all countries - China is notably absent from the Sentencing Project's report for.

The Sentencing Project report doesn't analyze the reasons why the US leads the world in this dubious arena, other than to observe that US crime rates are higher than in other countries and that US criminal justice policies have favored imprisonment.

American murder rates, for instance, are at least seven times higher than most of Europe. And the report says that ``thousands are in prison due to policy choices - as a result of mandatory minimum sentences, restrictive parole policies, sentencing guidelines, and other policies.''

The US incarceration rate, says Alabama corrections commissioner Morris Thigpen, reflects a ``philosophy that all of us have allowed to become so [entrenched]: that the way we handle criminals is by totally removing them from society, by locking them up.''

``I think,'' he says, ``that people are beginning to question whether that really solves anything,'' although he stresses firm support for imprisoning violent criminals. ``Some people realize now that just to routinely turn to incarceration [in cases of property and nonviolent crimes] is an unwise decision.''

To slow the rate of incarceration the report advises the repeal of mandatory sentencing laws, that those fighting the ``war on drugs'' redefine drug abuse as a public health and not a criminal justice problem, and that law-enforcement officials focus more on community needs and crime prevention. It also urges wider use of alternatives to incarceration and, for those in prison, easier access to education and job training.

But most of all, the Sentencing Project urges widespread study and discussion of crime and punishment. The reaction to their report shows why national dialogue is needed: While corrections officials like Mr. Thigpen viewed the new statistic with grim foreknowledge, the press coverage, conveyed with a tone of dismay and shock, suggested that the public would greet the news with surprise.

The report is a simple publication, without fancy printing or binding. It consists of a few tables and 15 pages of accompanying recommendations and comments. But it drew an impressive blast of press attention. Some 700 newspapers have written about the findings, and more than 50 papers have editorialized on the subject, according to Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project and the author of the report.

The US wins ``The Grand Slammer Award,'' opined the Blade of Toledo, Ohio. It's a ``shameful world record,'' said the Oakland Tribune. The US is ``At the Top of Wrong List,'' pronounced the Washington Post.

There wasn't much surprise on the part of those in the business of incarcerating US lawbreakers and alleged criminals - state-corrections commissioners, wardens, and other law-enforcement executives. In interviews, some of these officials said the Sentencing Project's report, and the reaction it caused, are signs that a longstanding political consensus that crime should be battled with long prison terms may be waning.

When Bob Watson, Delaware's corrections commissioner, began his career in 1953, he saw rehabilitation programs losing ground to a heavy emphasis on law and order and punishment. Now, he says, ``I think we're seeing that the pendulum has swung as far in [that] direction as it can go.''

Among Alabama politicians, judges, and media, commissioner Thigpen also sees changes in attitudes. Thigpen says that at a recent state legislative conference political leaders ``were acknowledging openly that we've got to look for some other way of dealing with this problem.''

Delaware's Mr. Watson says there's ``a valuing of freedom ... reflected in [high US and state] incarceration rates - that when someone breaks our laws we're quick to lock them up.''

``We have in this culture,'' he explains, ``a right/wrong, black/white, good/bad, true/false [mentality]. We don't have much tolerance for in-betweens.'' He says this sensibility has influenced the creation and application of mandatory prison sentences for certain violent and drug-related crimes.

But Watson says he's been encouraged by the growing awareness that the higher the quality of a state's public education system, the lower its rate of incarceration is likely to be. He says he hopes that politicians and the public may want to spend funds on improving educational opportunities, rather than on constructing new prisons.

In his dual role as politician and jail administrator, Robert Rufo views the national corrections picture a little differently. The elected sheriff of Suffolk County, Mass., Mr. Rufo presides over the Nashua Street Jail, a pretrial detention facility for Boston with an average daily count of 470 prisoners. He is in the trenches of the prison-overcrowding controversy; the US Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Rufo can modify a 1979 consent decree, approved by a judge, by putting two inmates in so me of his cells.

``I understand the concept that we can't ... build our way out the crime problem, and I do not believe that every person, every first-time incarcerant, should be [put] behind bars.... But I think that what we have to do as a society, and we are beginning to do this, is to carve out certain criteria ... for the types of people that really should not be [at large].'' Only when those criteria are in place, Rufo says, should the corrections community go much further along the path of alternative sentences.

RUFO'S situation isn't much different from that of any other corrections official. He's seen his jail's annual population go from 3,400 in 1977 to more than 15,000 projected for this year. But he doesn't cite society's sharp-edged moral focus or mandatory sentencing laws to explain that increase.

``The reason for that is pure and simple,'' he says, ``the proliferation of drugs in our society. The availability of drugs, cheap drugs, has infected our young people's minds to the point where they do not want to work, they've lost their self-esteem, they have no drive, they have no work ethic, for the most part, they just want to get high and hang out and then get in trouble.''

But ask James Rollins, warden of a maximum-security state prison in Baltimore how he reacts to the knowledge that the US is a world leader in his line of work, and he'll say it's because American society has become selfish.

``From the inmates that I talk to it's all I ... it's all taking care of my needs.'' Some of them will tell you, he says, that they ``had very little opportunity to have the materialistic things that people have in life, so they choose the quick money.'' To him it seems impossible that his state will be able to continue building prisons and taxing the public for the necessary funds. But for now, he says, ``it looks like the public is willing to do that.''

Only when the public refuses to pay will society address the ``causes and effects of incarceration,'' says Warden Rollins.

Getting the public to look at the big picture is Marc Mauer's mission at the Sentencing Project. Says Mauer, ``What we've done in some small way, I think, is to help people to take a step back ... [and] look at the cumulative impact of all [the] day-to-day decisions, and the cumulative impact is ... unbelievable - that the wealthiest country in the world is the world leader in incarceration. I mean, how can that be?''

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