In the land where being ‘number one’ is a national birthright, the USA have succeeded in coming first in the number of incarcerated persons, both by per capita and in real terms. More than 47 million Americans (or a quarter of the adult population) have criminal records on file with federal or state criminal justice agencies. An estimated 13 million Americans are either currently serving a sentence for a felony conviction or have been convicted of a felony in the past. This translates into over 6 percent of the adult population having been convicted of a felony crime.
The U.S. now locks up its citizens at a rate 5-8 times that of the industrialized nations. Explaining the massive influx of incarceration is more complex than a simple correlation with increased criminal activity. In fact, it is generally understood that the increase was not caused by changes in criminal activity and instead by a shift in policy, specifically in the area of drug crimes and habitual offenders. The results suggest that the almost tripling of the prison population during the period 1980-96 was less likely to do with crime, with criminal activity accounting for just 12% of the prison rise. Rather it is believed that changes in sentencing policy accounted for 88% of the increase
One example of policy influencing incarceration rates is the ‘Three Strikes’ laws which calls for a long-term sentencing of repeat offenders. One extreme example is a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court where it upheld the California statute in a case in which a man convicted of stealing $153 worth of videotapes from a department store received a sentence of 50 years to life at a cost of 1 million dollars!
Perhaps the most alarming evidence to emerge from prison population data is the unequal distribution of race. African American males are being incarcerated at an unacceptable rate with one of every eight black males in the age group 25-29 currently in some form of lock up. Data from the Department of Justice reveals that a black male born in 1997 has a 29% chance of spending time in state or federal prison in his lifetime. The ethnic composition of the inmate population of the United States has been virtually inverted in the last half century, going from about 70% (Anglo) white at the mid-century point to less that 30% today
Another significant influence on incarceration levels has been the ‘war on drugs’. Between 1985 and 1995, drug incarcerations were responsible for 75% of the growth in the federal prison population and 33% of the state prison population growth.
The attitude of ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ is an extreme position and is negatively impacting a specific segment of the population; a segment already debilitated by poverty and injustice. So why do we stand for it? It’s all in the name of feeling ‘safe’. Surely there are better ways of bringing safety to our streets? Or do we believe 30% of African Americans are rotten through, incapable of contributing to a healthy society? Do we believe that drug addicts are beyond rehabilitation and must not be released until they are 70 years old?
I know this is Australia and I am referring to America (though you will remember our stats for incarcerated Indigenous are not too dissimilar), but lets consider our position now so we don’t walk into the same trap ten years from now!
Where do you stand? What shall be done to prevent mass incarceration???
Think it over and have a great weekend!
PS…where are all the bloggers? I am challenging you all to a blog duel!!!