Building More Prisons Won't Solve Soaring Crime Rate

Article excerpt

Well before the end of the century, the United States will achieve the distinction of having a million of its citizens in prison. We are not far from that now - over 925,000 - and the number of prison inmates is growing almost as fast as the national debt. In the year ending last June 30, prison population increased by 70,000.

To visualize what that last figure means, think of putting high walls, triple-strand barbed wire and guard towers around entire cities the size of Lynchburg, Va., St. Joseph, Mo., East Orange, N.J., or Appleton, Wis.

The incarceration rate in the United States is almost three times that of Canada and six times that of Italy. Add in the half-million people being held in local jails on any given day and you have a total that is even more impressive - or depressing.

In the 1980s, the number in prison and in jail more than doubled. In that decade, the number behind bars grew at a rate 10 times higher than the growth of the adult population. It was 17 times higher than the increase in serious crimes.

Where all this will end is anyone's guess. One thing it is surely doing is straining the budgets of all levels of government. One thing it is not doing is easing people's fear of crime. Yet voters and politicians continue to believe that locking up criminals is the key to safer streets and neighborhoods.

The House is about to pass another crime bill, which will build more prisons to incarcerate still more thousands. The legislation includes a version of the popular "three strikes, you're out" requirement for lifetime sentences for those convicted of three violent crimes. It is more limited than the crime bill passed by the Senate, but it still embodies the prospect of senescent former muggers spending their declining years in prison hospitals, while their grandsons' generation causes mayhem on the streets.

Crime is at the top of almost every local news show and, not coincidentally, the issue voters say is most on their mind. Congress aims to give the people what they want. The quaintly named subcommittee on intellectual property and judicial administration of the House Judiciary Committee decided last month by voice vote to authorize $3 billion over five years to build new cells for repeat offenders. …