Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?

American prisons employ more people than Ford, G.M., and Wal-Mart combined. With 5% of the world population, the U.S. has 25% of its prisoners...

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Time Magazine reported that the growth in the prison industry was one of the most underreported stories. Basically, the prison population has increased eight-fold since 1975, but without a corresponding decrease in crime. In fact, violent crime in some of our larger cities has been inching up over the past several years.

Why the incarceration binging? Since the 1980s, policy makers have chanted the mantra "let's get tough" on criminals and they have delivered. Over 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated and over seven million are under some form of supervision. Together with health and welfare spending, corrections budgets are crowding out state spending for education.

But it does not have to be this way. By way of example, my own state of Idaho, with a population of 1.47 million, is sending hundreds of inmates out of state and is planning new prison construction. The justification for this policy and expenditure is population growth. Yet the decision to incarcerate instead of offering treatment is a political one not grounded in any sort of empiricism.

It is time for sentencing reform, but not the rhetoric of the past. Should prison not be reserved for individuals who truly represent a threat to public safety? Would it not be better to treat the underlying causes of crime rather than continue to invest millions in policies that at best don't work, but perhaps make the condition even worse? Are we going to continue to let the criminal justice industrial complex grow without any accountability?

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