Although the United States accounts for fewer than 5% of the world’s population, it holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. The United States has 751 people in prison for every 100,000 in population making the incarceration rate in the U.S. the highest in the world. Senator James Webb of Virginia has introduced legislation to study the criminal justice system with an eye towards reforming it. Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times looks at this crazy system particularly in light of budgeting priorities:
At a time when we Americans may abandon health care reform because it supposedly is “too expensive,” how is it that we can afford to imprison people like Curtis Wilkerson?You can read the entire article here.
Mr. Wilkerson is serving a life sentence in California — for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks. As The Economist noted recently, he already had two offenses on his record (both for abetting robbery at age 19), and so the “three strikes” law resulted in a life sentence.
This is unjust, of course. But considering that California spends almost $49,000 annually per prison inmate, it’s also an extraordinary waste of money.
Astonishingly, many politicians seem to think that we should lead the world in prisons, not in health care or education. The United States is anomalous among industrialized countries in the high proportion of people we incarcerate; likewise, we stand out in the high proportion of people who have no medical care — and partly as a result, our health care outcomes such as life expectancy and infant mortality are unusually poor.
It’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system, as legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Webb has called for, so that we’re no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health. Consider a few facts:
¶The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.
¶California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.
¶For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared.
¶One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project.
Look, there’s no doubt that many people in prison are cold-blooded monsters who deserve to be there. But over all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools.
Senator Webb has introduced legislation that would create a national commission to investigate criminal justice issues — for such a commission may be the best way to depoliticize the issue and give feckless politicians the cover they need to institute changes.
“There are only two possibilities here,” Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”
Opponents of universal health care and early childhood education say we can’t afford them. Granted, deficits are a real constraint and we can’t do everything, and prison reform won’t come near to fully financing health care reform. Still, would we rather use scarce resources to educate children and heal the sick, or to imprison people because they used drugs or stole a pair of socks?