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?
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.
And despite chronic underestimates by prison authorities, independent studies estimate that at least 1 in 5 inmates are threatened or forced into sexual contact. Of these, more than half had been raped at least once. Data from the US Department of Justice shows that 42 percent of reported assaults were by prison staff, while 37 percent involved prisoner-on-prisoner violence. We have built Abu Ghraib next door.
How long will we put up with this vicious cycle – and this waste of human potential? There is a better way:
•Invest federal dollars to put more cops on high-crime streets, since the data show that more police coverage had a greater effect on reducing crime in the 1990s than more jail time. President Obama's proposed budget adds less than a half percent to policing; the much-bigger boost in the 1990s led to a massive decline in crime.
•Revise mandatory sentencing guidelines and repeal the "three strikes" law so that judges have discretion to apply proportionate punishment. That's what they're paid for. Without that discretion, we'll continue to jam prisons with low-level offenders whose lives are likely to worsen in jail. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and others now recognize data showing that longer sentences do little to reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders.
•States should ramp up efforts to handle drug users in drug courts rather than the criminal courts, sentencing them to monitored treatment rather than jail. From Texas to New Jersey, community-based programs with day-reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service are generating cost-effective results.
•To break the cycle of recidivism, cities must find creative ways to fund responsible, safe reentry programs. San Francisco, for example, partnered with Goodwill to fund a "Back on Track" program limited to adults without weapons offenses, who receive job training and placement, apprenticeships in the building trades, GED preparation, and parenting support.
If there's one person who needs your support now to make more of this happen, it's Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia. He's a decorated Marine and former Reagan administration Navy secretary with the courage and credibility to do for prison reform (a liberal cause) what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform (a conservative one).
Fixing this would tap the best of our traditions from both left and right. For conservatives, it restores the ideals of freedom and individual responsibility that no prison teaches, reducing the reach of the worst kind of welfare state. For liberals, it mitigates great social injustice and the disproportionate jailing of black and Latino Americans. And for both, it relieves state budgets of unsustainable expense that is damaging our standing in the world, our self-respect, and our safety.
Redemption is one of the oldest and best American stories. This is the land of the second chance.
Let's have a clearer and more constructive conversation about what we're trying to accomplish in our prisons: retribution, or reform. It doesn't take much for a boy who can't sit still and focus in class to wind up with a rap sheet and a lifetime defined by doing wrong.
Can we live with that? The answer depends on what you think American society should more closely resemble: a school, or a prison.
Mark Lange is a consultant and former presidential speechwriter.