Wanted: The Prison Issue

Something was missing from presidential campaign 2000 - the crime issue. That may be because both George W. Bush and Al Gore were already on record as strong anticrime crusaders. Or because overall crime rates went down through the 1990s.

But crime ought to be a matter of acute national concern if for no other reason than this: The United States has 2 million people behind bars, at a cost of some $40 billion yearly. That number of inmates represents a far higher imprisonment rate than any other advanced industrial country.

Is this because America is simply a more violent country? No. It's fundamentally because politicians in America, in their race to capture the anticrime vote, have passed sentencing laws that automatically incarcerate, for five years or more, a great many people whose crimes could have been dealt with in other ways - including probation, shorter jail stays, and mandatory drug rehabilitation programs.

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It's estimated nearly half the 2 million inmates in the US are serving time for small-time drug possession and other nonviolent crimes.

But if crime rates are down, isn't all the jail time and jail-building worth it? Consider a recent report by the Sentencing Project, a group that favors alternatives to prison. It traced incarceration rates, state by state, through the 1990s. Texas, the state with the largest increase in incarceration (144 percent) had a crime-rate drop of 35 percent. But other comparably large and diverse states, such as California and New York, had much smaller increases in incarceration with similar or even larger decreases in crime.

These statistics cast doubt on the efficiency and efficacy of prisons as the primary solution to a multifaceted crime problem.

What may be occurring all too efficiently is the induction of large numbers of Americans, particularly black males, into a culture shaped by prison.

Disturbingly, some researchers note a trend of convicted criminals choosing a prison term over probation when they have a choice - at least partly because time spent behind bars is considered a badge of honor in some urban neighborhoods.

Another facet of this acculturation phenomenon: Nine states bar anyone convicted of a felony from voting. Scholars estimate 7 percent of African-Americans are thus disenfranchised. In Alabama, nearly a third of black men can't vote because of a prior conviction. That's a perpetual block to full citizenship - hence an invitation to continued social pathology - and states ought to remove it.

Incarceration is a necessary part of our systems of justice. But its overuse can undermine justice and perpetuate lives of crime.

America is at a point where its leaders should be facing this issue, not acting as if it didn't exist.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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