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February 28, 2007

Are we really a nation committed to liberty?

This new potent commentary, entitled "'Land of free' is a prison nation," by David Love has me wondering again if the United States really believes in its purported commitment to human liberty and freedom. Here are some highlights:

The land of the free is a nation of prisons.  A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts has sounded the alarm on the high rate of prison growth in this country.... The United States, a mere 5 percent of the world's population, incarcerates a quarter of the world's prisoners.

What is fueling this prison boom?  It boils down to policy choices.  More and more people are being incarcerated with longer and longer sentences, particularly for nonviolent offenses.  Prisons are overcrowding.  Parole is a thing of the past in some places, mandatory minimum sentences are the rule of the day and the concept of rehabilitation has been abandoned. As state budgets tighten and prison spending goes out of control, education and badly needed social services fall by the wayside.

Sadly, opportunistic politicians pander to white America's fear of black and brown criminality.  Lawmakers enact "get tough on crime" measures that provide catchy slogans and the appearance of action but do little to provide creative, effective solutions to society's ills.  As a result, we have the war on drugs, which has really become a war on communities of color and the poor, with laws punishing crack cocaine users far more severely than those who use powdered cocaine.  Prisons have become the new company towns....

Fortunately, there are signs of hope as people question the vast investment in incarceration and seek creative alternatives to the prison industrial complex. The Supreme Court is revisiting how much latitude federal judges should have in sentencing. Two years ago, the high court struck down the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and made them advisory instead.... Some states are recognizing what a drain the prison craze has on their budgets and are looking for more sensible solutions.

This prison madness is not about serving justice or protecting the public. It is about warped public-policy priorities, a lack of leadership and protecting powerful interests. We cannot make society whole by locking millions of people up and expecting our problems to go away.

Some related posts:

February 28, 2007 at 09:23 AM | Permalink


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"The United States, a mere 5 percent of the world's population, incarcerates a quarter of the world's prisoners."

This statistic should be screamed from the rooftops and should be discussed by every MSM outlet there is. I think most people who don't pay attention to sentencing/punishment issues everyday feel that, while there may be some problems here and there, the overall system is not overly harsh. But when you hear this statistic, it should really strike home that America has a SERIOUS over-incarceration problem, and that other countries are just as safe - or even more safe - without resorting to the draconian incarceration policies we have in the U.S.

America's "addiction to incarceration" should get just as much attention as our addition to oil does.

Posted by: DEJ | Feb 28, 2007 11:53:41 AM

Simple solution: Repeal the 19th Amendment. As long as women are allowed to vote, politicians can and will justify every action based on "protecting the children." Sorry, I don't mean to sound sexist, and I have nothing against women. But when 50% of the voting population is acting primarily on the maternal instinct to protect children, all criminal laws/penalties are automatically justified. For the children.

Nearly every act passed by congress has a cutesy little acronym as its title, and nearly all of them have the word "child" or "children" in it. Children's On Line Protection Act. Children's This Act, Children's That Act. All of which mean more people in prison.

Before women had the franchise this "for the children" crap didn't work. Appealing to the maternal instinct to justify legislation is simply BAD public policy.

Posted by: Bruce | Feb 28, 2007 1:12:08 PM

Don't think women have anything to do with it. But it is worthwhile to point out that a lot of other countries aren't "just as safe - or even more safe" than America (China, Sudan, Rwanda, North Korea, Serbia, Cuba, Colombia, Russia on and on and on).

It is true that there are some countries, mainly Western European ones, that have markedly lower incarceration rates. "We" could learn a thing or two from them. But we also have a massively larger population, more historic and larger racial mix and tensions, and a differently structured economy and basic social structure (which has its own advantanges and disadvantages).

It also depends which crimes you're talking about when you say those Western European countries are "safer."

Posted by: | Feb 28, 2007 1:33:20 PM

It's so nice to see people impugning the criminal justice system as the product of white people's fears of minority criminals. Can't people advocate the imprisonment of criminals without being tarred as racist, or do we have to be lenient to criminals to prove our bona fides on the race issue. That's a hell of a price to pay for being stylish.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 28, 2007 11:16:38 PM

We incarcerate people because we are afraid of them or we are mad at them. It is difficult to see how one can avoid the former but we can ask if is good public policy to incarcerate people we are mad at in such large numbers when acceptible alternative sanctions are available.

In Iowa most of the prisoners we have good reason to be afraid of are serving sentences considerably longer than five years and most of the ones we are mad at are serving sentences shorter than five years (2.5 years is about average) and more than a third of that set are returnees.

Many of the returnees are dependent on alcohol/drugs and if they go back to abusing their substance of choice they can return on a parole violation or because they are convicted on a new charge (such as repeat OWI/DUI). There are more cost effective ways to deal with such offenders (residential work release plus aggressive drug treatment/aftercare followed by rigorous supervision) so my conclusion is it is fiscally irresposible to incarcerate people we are mad at in such large numbers.

Posted by: jsn | Mar 1, 2007 4:24:53 PM

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