One of the dirty open secrets about “the land of the free” is that, here in America, we have more people in our prison system than any other country in the world. Here’s the numbers: as of 2010, there were 2,267,000 people behind bars in America, with 4,934,000 additional Americans on probation and parole. Fourteen million Americans are “former felons,” who will be handicapped for the rest of their lives with difficulties in being hired or receiving government assistance such as grants or loans for schooling, not to mention the shackles on their minds that all too often from a stint in prison.
The good ol’ USA is way out in front of the number two imprisoner of human beings–Russia. The US incarceration rate in 2009 was 743 per hundred thousand, fifty percent ahead of the Russians and Rwandans, both of which clock in at around 560 per hundred thou. By contrast, only 71 out of every hundred thousand Norwegians is imprisoned. In Holland, where legal marijuana sales should , according to the DEA, have precipitated a massive crime wave, the incarceration rate is 94 per thousand…hey, maybe they’re just too stoned to bother arresting people….or too high to go out and commit crimes? And, when Republicans say they don’t want America to be like Europe, is this what they’re talking about? Is this really a field in which we want America to be “number one”?
Ooh, but aren’t we keeping hordes of violent criminals off the streets?
No, not really. About eight percent of the roughly two hundred thousand people in federal prison are there for violent crimes. That’s about sixteen thousand people. About half the roughly 1.3 million people in state prisons are in for violent crimes–that’s about 650,000 people. And approximately a fifth of the three-quarter million individuals in local jails are there for violent crimes–that’s about a hundred and fifty thousand people. When you add it all up, that’s slightly over a third of all prisoners locked up for violent crimes, about 816,000 out of roughly 2.25 million, with two-thirds of those in jail, about one and a half million people, locked up for non-violent, frequently “victimless,” crimes, at a cost to taxpayers–that’s you and me–of around thirty-six billion dollars a year.
What’s a “victimless” crime? About half of all federal prisoners are jailed for drug convictions of one kind or another–that’s a hundred thousand people. A fifth of state prisoners have committed drug crimes–that’s about a quarter million people. Statistics aren’t available for local jails, but that leaves us with a third of a million of the million and a half people in state and federal penitentiaries locked up for “drugs.”
Of course, not everybody who is arrested for a crime goes to jail, but everyone who is arrested on any grounds still has their life warped by contact with the American judicial system. One example is marijuana arrests, which, although they have increased sharply, rarely result in prison sentences these days, although they do take up a lot of police and court time–about $2.5 billion dollars worth, by one estimate. Arresting people for marijuana became a “growth industry” when the counterculture first flourished in the 70’s and 80’s. During those decades, marijuana arrests averaged between 350 and 400,000 per year. In the early 90’s, the rate rapidly doubled, and for the last twenty years has averaged between 700 and 750,000, rising in the last few years over the 800,000 arrests per year level. That’s a rough total of twenty-two million Americans arrested in the last 40 years for marijuana posession, mostly–about 80-90%, the rest being cultivation or sale cases. That’s about 7 out of every hundred people arrested for marijuana over the last 40 years.
Don’t get too paranoid, though–even at the current, shocking rate of one hundred marijuana arrests per hour, the well-respected Rand Corporation estimates that “there is only one arrest for every 11-12,000 joints.”
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. What I want to talk about today is that, no matter what they were arrested for, two-thirds of the prisoners in America are people of colour, mostly poor people of color, and, while that’s completely out of proportion with their numbers in the population, If you’re white, you’re much less likely to end up in jail for the same crime that would lock up a black or Latino.
What I want to focus on is a new “cyber tool” that has been put into play recently. This cyber-tool provides a very dramatic visual aid that helps bring home to lawmakers the folly of “getting tough on crime” instead of getting tough on the conditions that spawn crime.
The connection between crime and social conditions is pretty obvious to anyone who takes the time to look. Kids who are brought up in an environment lacking in worthwhile adult role models, without intellectual or cultural stimulation, will tend to turn out badly, just as adults who feel that no amount of hard work on their part will bring them any reasonable measure of satisfaction will become cynical about the system that inflicts this living hell on them.
In the late 1990’s, Eric Cadora, a young New Yorker working with a prison-reform nonprofit in New York City, had an inspiration. The police were using crime statistics to create maps of “crime hot spots” in the city. Eric did something similar–he used computer mapping to show where there were high concentrations of home addresses of people in jail, and he discovered that there were dozens of blocks in the city with so many incarcerated residents that the state was spending over a million dollars to send people to prison, only to have them leave jail and go back to the same conditions that left them no option but criminal behavior. The state was spending millions to imprison people, and next to nothing to alleviate the conditions that spawned that behavior to begin with. The maps were a kind of visual “code red” message that got through to lawmakers at a basic level, and moved them to realize that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of prison.” At a time when both budget cutting and public safety are high priorities for legislators, this message has a strong appeal, in spite of the blandishments of the prison lobby–and more on that later.
The researchers and lawmakers looked further, and realized that minor parole violations are a major cause of recidivism. People were getting locked back up for missing appointments with their probation officers. Easing up on that, as well as creating drug treatment programs, mental health programs, and, oh yeah, job training programs, has worked to reduce crime and recidivism.
As any regular reader or listener of mine knows, I have strong negative opinions about the value of most “drug treatment” and “mental health” programs, but at least this is a beginning. As a Green, I would like to see community-originated programs replace social-welfare bureaucracy-inspired programs as the modus operandi of this redistribution of state spending. Many of the “million dollar blocks” are concentrated in areas that are ripe for serious reclamation.There could be weatherizing and energy-efficiency programs, implemented by training residents in necessary skills. There are abandoned buildings that could be rehabbed for locally or communally owned craft shops, stores and community centers. There are derelict buildings that could be removed, and empty lots that could be converted, into garden and park space–it has been demonstrated over and over again that increasing the number of trees in a neighborhood makes the residents happier, the air cleaner, and seems to reduce the crime rate. No amount of money can create community, but creating a local economy provides a nexus in which community can happen.
To me, it seems like the underlying principle that I am talking about is that people feel less alienated, and are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior, if they are able to provide for their own and their neighbors’ needs–food, clothing, shelter, household items, culture, and companionship.
This approach has spread from New York to several other high-crime cities, most notably New Haven and New Orleans. (Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and thus the highest incarceration rate in the world.) In a culture that all too often seems to have taken a massive wrong turn, it’s refreshing to see a little common sense take hold and start to spread.
Not that there isn’t some pushback. Prison building and administration is a growth industry, often seen by desperate small towns as their only hope for a meal ticket now that so much industry has been offshored. In some states, prison guards are a well-organized political force that goes beyond the reasonable union tasks of making sure its members are adequately paid and have good working conditions, and agitates to pass or preserve laws that create more prisoners. In many other states, private prisons are a growth industry–Tennessee is one of those. We are home to Corrections Corporation of America, which was founded with the intent of making a profit from keeping people in jail. Is that perverse, or what? One way they make a profit is by paying their guards as little as eight or nine dollars an hour. Just sayin’, as they say….
You would think an issue like “the land of the free” being home to more prisoners than any other country in the world would be an issue in this election, but it’s not. Obama, in spite of his promises, has done nothing to bring sanity to this situation. Although he promised to base the country’s drug laws on science, not politics, he reappointed Cheney’s anti-drug crazed DEA chief, unleashing a heightened round of persecution for American marijuana users. At least Mitt Romney is stating out front that he’ll get tough on drugs. The things Democrats will say (and then not do!) to woo voters!
But hey, it was our esteemed Vice President, Joe Biden, who was largely responsible for the asset forfeiture laws that have made keeping marijuana illegal such a lucrative concern for local law enforcement agencies. The duopoly parties only offer marijuan users a choice of which jailer they prefer. They ignore the question of why drug use should be such a driver of our prison population.
The Green Party offers common sense on incarceration and drug policy. We may seem to be a long way from “the corridors of power” at the moment, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. After all, when they started,the Republicans were third-party-upstarts!
Anyway, some of the people who run some parts of our country are starting to act sensibly about what’s happening to our nation’s social fabric. Maybe that good sense will spread through our culture fast enough to make a difference. Maybe there’s hope for the future.
Jackson Browne–“Lawless Avenues”
Richard and Linda Thompson–“The Sun Never Shines on the Poor”
Steve Earle,”What’s a Simple Man To Do?”
Richard Thompson “I Feel So Good (I’m Gonna Break Somebody’s Heart Tonight)”
Fairport Convention–“Percy‘s Song”