A Troubling Statistic

THE size of the prison population in the United States is a statistic that strikes different people different ways. Does it show that get-tough policies are having the desired effect, putting more offenders behind bars? Or does it imply a rush to incarceration that's sweeping up thousands of individuals who really don't belong in jail?

The answer to both questions is a qualified yes.

Anticrime legislation passed in recent years, particularly those measures aimed at drug abuse, have tried to ensure that people who break laws will serve time. Judging from the tough anticrime stances taken even by otherwise liberal Democrats, stiff, mandatory sentences are likely to continue - and so are growing prison populations.

The politics of crime will resurface this election year, and it will be as hard as ever to find anyone willing to talk about rehabilitation, alternative sentences, better work programs for inmates, and underlying social problems.

According to the Sentencing Project, based in Washington, 1.1 million Americans are currently experiencing the inside of a cell. The incarceration rate in the US is 455 people per 100,000. This is 10 times the rate in Japan or much of Western Europe.

How many of these people really belong in a lockup? A central issue here is the drug war. Mandatory penalities for possession - particularly of crack cocaine - account for much of the doubling of inmates since 1980. Tough sentences have probably deterred some prospective drug offenders, but they have also served to introduce a generation of young, mostly minority Americans to prison life.

The impact of widespread incarceration on black, inner-city communities is potentially devastating. Some researchers estimate that more than 80 percent of black males born in the US can anticipate being jailed sometime during their lives.

What does this say about social disintegration in urban America? Can the country afford to have a large portion of its young men stereotyped as crime-prone and dangerous? Is the widely shared experience of prison among young black men instilling the criminal culture and deepening that stereotype?

Crime is a terrible problem in the US, but prison, by itself, is not the solution. Imaginative alternative sentencing, non-confinement monitoring of offenders, drug-treatment programs, education, and job training must be also prominent parts of the nation's anticrime effort.

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