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Opinion

Redeem the prison generation

Treating prisoners like toxic social waste isn't working. Here's a better way.

By Mark Lange / June 3, 2009



San Francisco

They're the least popular constituency in America. People we'd rather forget. Last year, a record 1 in every 100 American adults was in prison. One in every 30 men aged 20 to 34. And among black males in that age group? One in 9. Why?

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Because America's crime and punishment policies reflect an incoherent mix of motives: justice, retribution, vengeance, the illusion of expedience, the cruel bigotry of nonexistent expectations. And absent decent job training, counseling, and re-entry programs, the system only incites violence and invites recidivism.

It's past time to reconsider our approach to prisons, for practical reasons – and because it seriously undermines our effectiveness as a society and our moral authority with other nations.

With just 5 percent of the world's population, we cage almost a quarter of the world's prisoners – a trend that has accelerated wildly since the 1970s. If the 2.3 million Americans now behind bars joined the 5 million on parole or probation to form a city of their own, you'd have a population nearly twice that of Los Angeles. Feeling safer yet?

You shouldn't. The last decade's legendary drop in crime may be providing a false sense of security. Applying the murder rate as an index for overall crime, William J. Stuntz of Harvard Law School notes that advances in emergency medicine mean that one-fourth of victims now survive murder attempts that would have been fatal in the halcyon 1950s. Adjust for that factor, he says, and "a clear picture emerges: Outside the South, American cities are at least several times more violent than they were in the mid-20th century."

With exceptions (since justice is imperfect), inmates aren't innocents, of course. They all had victims, directly or indirectly. And many are plea bargainers suspected of more serious crimes that couldn't be proved in court. We're certainly right to err on the side of safety with violent offenders, drug and human traffickers, rapists, anyone guilty of child molestation – where there is no basis for trust and no room for error.

But the 10-fold increase since 1980 of incarceration for small-time drug use has put half a million people, one-fifth of the total prison population, behind bars. While crime comes in degrees, the basic risk assessment we apply to every other human enterprise – from military interventions to medicine to making children's toys – doesn't seem to apply here. Instead, the crudest and broadest possible sentencing mandates treat many offenders as domestic terrorists, with little regard for the severity of the crime or the risk to society.

Being "tough" on crime should mean getting results. But more than two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Why? Because we recycle nonviolent offenders for minor, technical violations of probation or parole. Miss a parole appointment? Back to jail.

Mass imprisonment of nonviolent offenders amounts to justice by lock-down – and lets government off the hook for results. The only stakeholders this system serves are elected officials, including judges, who are rewarded for posing as "tough" on crime without solving it – and the lobbyists and interests paid to build and run prisons.

We'll pay the prison industrial complex at least $50 billion this year to build jails that are essentially crime schools where nonviolent offenders are taught violence. That's an average of $24,000 a year to make each inmate just go away. What are we getting for our money?

For starters, inhumane conditions that are unworthy of America. Prisons punish inmates who are addicted or mentally disabled. A federal court found that in California a prisoner dies a needless death due to inadequate medical care or malpractice every six to seven days. The use of solitary confinement is spreading.

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