Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lockdown USA: Our Bloated Penal System

Prison Nation

David C. Fathi Director, US Program, Human Rights Watch - The Huffington Post

"It's become a depressingly predictable event. Every few months, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a branch of the US Department of Justice, releases new figures showing that the US prison and jail population has grown yet again and has reached a new all-time high. The latest statistics, released last week, show that as of June 30, 2008, more than 2.3 million people were behind bars in this country -- an increase of almost 20 percent just since 2000. This gives the United States an incarceration rate of 762 per 100,000 residents - the highest rate in the world, dwarfing those of other democracies like Great Britain (152 per 100,000), Canada (116), and Japan (63).

Of course incarceration doesn't affect everyone equally. Black men in the United States are 6.6 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. More than 10 percent of all black males ages 25 to 39 were in prison or jail as of June 30, 2008. And a 2006 BJS study showed that prisons and jails have become the new asylums, with more than half of all prisoners suffering from mental health problems like major depression and psychotic disorders.

It wasn't always like this. For much of the 20th century, the US incarceration rate remained fairly stable. It began to climb sharply in the late 1970s, as a result of policy changes like mandatory minimum sentencing and the widespread abolition of parole. In the 1980s and 1990s, the "war on drugs" and "three strikes" laws fueled further growth. More people were going to prison, and staying there for longer periods of time. By 2004, the incarcerated population was six times what it had been in 1972."
2,300,000 people in our nation's prisons. That's more people than live in all of Utah, or Nevada, or New Mexico, or West Virginia. Take the Dakotas, toss in Vermont and Wyoming, and you'd have just about the same number of people. In fact, there are more people living on lockdown in the USofA than there are living in 15 of our 50 states. And of course minorities, who equally more likely to be victims of crimes, bear the overwhelming brunt of these incarceration rates.

This is wrong wrong wrong. And there's a very simple solution, folks. We need to stop locking up potheads and other non-violent drug abusers. It's really that simple. People should be going to jail for non-violent offenses other than stealing, which is, arguably, a violent act.

We lock more people than China! And that's not even per capita. In REAL NUMBERS - we lock up more people than a repressive totalitarian state more than three times our size.

It's time to drive a stake through the heart of our prison-industrial complex. Thank god for people like Senator Jim Webb who is actually trying to do something about this.

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