I felt a surge of American pride last week that had nothing to do with Michael Phelps. America now has more people incarcerated per capita than any other nation on Earth. U-S-A! U-S-A! War on Drugs! War on Drugs!
The Pew Center, as reported in the excellent industry sheet Correctional News, have announced the results of a study on incarceration, finding that a staggering 1.01% of the American population (1 in 99.1 adults) is in jail or prison. The annual cost to state governments: $49 billion dollars in 2007, up from $11 billion in 1987. That's a 400-plus percent increase in two decades in an era in which state budgets are in shambles.
Money well spent, though, right? You feel safer, right? This is working, right? Of course it isn't working, because there is no longer any "it" to work. There is no goal. We abandoned rehabilitative incarceration with the rest of the New Deal era in 1980, replacing it with the War on Drugs backed by draconian sentences in a purely punitive environment. The purpose isn't to rehabilitate, it is simply to take the (usually poor, brown) people declared unnecessary by the majestic wisdom of Thomas Friedman capitalism and put them somewhere out of sight. Just get rid of them. Send them to overcrowded gladiator academies like Stateville or Corcoran where, if they weren't already gang-affiliated, twitching balls of muscle ready to kill, they will be when they get out. Then act really shocked when they violate parole.
Pictured: Stateville's "Roundhouse"
Not pictured: a point
Costs have exploded, (mandatory minimum) sentences have doubled or tripled in length, and recidivism rates haven't gone down a bit (it's still 50% within 36 months). And lest you delude yourself about who is bearing the brunt of this: 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison right now. One of three are either on parole or in prison. A black male born today has a 30% chance of serving time in state or federal prison in his lifetime.
In rural areas – and prisons are always located in desperate, economically-dying rural communities like Crescent City, CA – half of the observed population growth since 1980 is a direct result of overwhelmingly-black urban convicts being shipped to rural prisons. For example, tiny Brown County, Illinois had 1 black resident in the 1980 Census. In 2000, 1265 (18%) of the county's 6,000 residents were black. Why? Western Illinois Correctional Center opened in Sterling, IL in 1989.
Politicians love to get "tough on crime" because proposing three-strikes or mandatory minimums is a great way for a bunch of candy-assed white guys to look tough. As naive is it might be to expect logic to intervene in this idiotic, delusional orgy of machismo, I have to wonder when Reagan's America will turn Rush Limbaugh down long enough to realize that these people taken "off the streets" do not cease to exist when the judge pounds the gavel. They have to be housed, and there are limits to how many can be jammed into a given space. Longer sentences and more prisons are proving to be a financial nightmare at $27,000 per head per year. We can't expect suburban America to care about the pointlessness or moral bankruptcy of this entire process, but as usual the bitching begins when they're asked to pay for it.