Imprisoning America

by Molly Kenney

More than one percent of the U.S. population is currently incarcerated, according to a report from Pew Center on the States released last week. The U.S. incarceration figures, both the number of individuals in prison and the percentage of the population, are far above those of any other country in the world. Corrections spending has risen to $49 billion annually at the state level and $5 billion at the federal level, and in the last 20 years, prison spending has increased at six times the rate of higher education spending.

Way to go, America.

That’s a reputation we can really be proud of, especially because the U.S. has the highest rates of gun crime in the world too, and the U.S. is the only Western nation to still use the death penalty. Building more prisons and incarcerating more people hasn’t changed that, nor has it had the drastic effect on crime rates that would be expected. Historically, the trendsetter of corrections policy, California has the most prisons of any state (more than 40). California also has the highest recidivism rate (about 70 percent of the state's inmates return to prison*). Could it be that more prison doesn’t mean less crime?

Adam Gelb, the director of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project that produced the new report, thinks it’s obvious. He was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate.” But the Center’s report draws that statement into question, even without mentioning that 95 percent of inmates are eventually released, most without having participated in any rehabilitative program. Plus, the rates just don’t match up: a constant increase in corrections spending, totaling 127 percent in the last 20 years, has not produced consistent or similarly high decreases in crime.

In the face of internationally embarrassing rates of imprisonment without clearly positive effects, it’s time for taxpayers and policymakers to start thinking. Maybe there are differences between high and low risk offenders, violent criminals and technical parole violators, incarceration and rehabilitation. Maybe corrections are worth addressing if, as the Post reports, one in nine black men aged 20 to 34 is incarcerated. Several other U.S. social problems — poverty, educational inequalities, lack of affordable healthcare, homelessness — are under-funded. If our deficit nation is going be giving corrections more and more money, we should make sure they’re effective. Maybe if politicians or the media cared about corrections, taxpayers might have a better idea of what they were funding and might start asking some questions.

Assuming our current prison system works is like any other assumption — it makes an ass out of all of us. So does standing by passively while more and more of our tax dollars, and citizens, are sucked into the vacuum of ineffective corrections.

*That figure if from the Pew Center on the States, but the state of California says its recidivism rate is 51 percent, although that figure only includes parolees who may go back to prison within two years of release.

(Graphic from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)

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