With 5% of the world's population, the United States today boasts 25% of its prison population. Despite declining crime rates in the last three decades (even in the midst of our current recession), rates of incarceration in the U.S. have been stunning. The Economist recently called this trend "a disgrace."
Even more staggering has been the racial disparity in the people our nation incarcerates.
In her new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Ohio State University legal scholar Michelle Alexander cogently considers the tidal wave of incarceration that has swept America in the past 30 years. She says mass incarceration has created a "new racial undercaste" which, although race-neutral on its face, has sharply greater impacts on people of color. "A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch," Alexander asserts; if we avert our gaze, "history will judge us harshly."
Reported street crime down, prison and jail populations continue to grow (albeit at a slower rate). As a utilitarian, I believe we have exceeded the number of people we need to incarcerate in order to have an impact on crime. Mass incarceration breeds theories such as those of Professor Alexander. Capitalism has also staked a claim in the prison-industrial complex. Some speculate that mass incarceration is a way to control the surplus labor pool. There are elements of reality in all of these theories. Clearly, mass incarceration represents the worst in an out of control criminal justice system.