I’ve written from time to time about a societal failing that results significantly from a lack of education, poor parenting, unemployment, poverty and institutional racism. This is the “prison-industrial system”. In Franz Kafka’s short story, “In the Penal Colony,” an unnamed narrator observes a process that’s a kind of dark parody of justice. In that classic tale, a machine fatally inscribes on the bodies of unwittingly accused prisoners the very laws that they have allegedly broken. Sadly, America’s penitentiary system has in recent generations taken a turn toward the Kafkaesque. Consider some very sobering statistics:
- The U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country, with nearly one-quarter of the entire world’s incarcerated population held in American prisons.
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), nearly 1% (more than 2,250,000) of American adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails in 2001.
- In addition, over 4,800,000 adults in 2011 were on probation or parole—meaning nearly seven million Americans total were under correctional supervision. That’s nearly 3% of U.S. adults.
- Non-Hispanic blacks accounted for just under 40% of the total prison population in 2009—a wildly disproportionate figure considering that African-Americans comprise just 13.6% of the U.S. population according to census figures.
- While violent crime rates have remained relatively consistent or declined over the past three decades, the number of American prisoners has more than quadrupled since 1980.
What’s going on here? The explosion in U.S. prison populations finds root causes in such systemic issues as institutionalized racism and links between illiteracy and incarceration. Most of it, however, has to do with policy changes including mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes” laws. America held less than a half-million prisoners in 1971 when President Nixon declared a national War on Drugs. 1973’s Rockefeller Drug Laws—which established strict mandatory sentences for the sale or possession of illegal narcotics—and the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act—which increased federal penalties for cultivation, possession, or transfer of marijuana—are key inflection points in the story of the explosive expansion of the U.S. inmate population. These and other drug enforcement-related policies have led to the number of incarcerated drug offenders increasing twelvefold since 1980.
Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of bad guys out there who have fallen prey to the dark sides of human nature. And local, state, and federal law enforcement officers and penitentiary workers do difficult, dangerous, and vitally important work. That said, prison sentencing reform—similar to racism and poverty—has for too long been a third rail of American politics: an elephant in the room that is hardly ever spoken about. (Just ask yourself, how many candidates debated these issues during the recent mid-term elections?)
I’ve got some personal skin in the game. I grew up in the north of England when prospects were pretty desolate and with a few wrong turns I could have gone down a very different path. Fortunately, I had strong role models—including a local police officer and a teacher—who helped put me on the straight-and-not-so-narrow road to realizing my potential. So it perplexes me why the land of the free and home of the brave should also boast the largest number of prisoners on earth.
Fortunately, there’s some good news about our criminal justice system and prison sentencing reform. Next week I’ll write about some tremendous work that is now being done to address what’s been called America’s greatest social crisis in modern history, including a ground-breaking initiative led by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, the Marshall Project, a non-for-profit, non-partisan news organization that exists to spur “a national conversation about criminal justice.”