A Troubling Statistic

Article excerpt

THE size of the prison population in the United States is a statistic that strikes different people different ways. Does it show that get-tough policies are having the desired effect, putting more offenders behind bars? Or does it imply a rush to incarceration that's sweeping up thousands of individuals who really don't belong in jail?

The answer to both questions is a qualified yes.

Anticrime legislation passed in recent years, particularly those measures aimed at drug abuse, have tried to ensure that people who break laws will serve time. Judging from the tough anticrime stances taken even by otherwise liberal Democrats, stiff, mandatory sentences are likely to continue - and so are growing prison populations.

The politics of crime will resurface this election year, and it will be as hard as ever to find anyone willing to talk about rehabilitation, alternative sentences, better work programs for inmates, and underlying social problems.

According to the Sentencing Project, based in Washington, 1.1 million Americans are currently experiencing the inside of a cell. The incarceration rate in the US is 455 people per 100,000. This is 10 times the rate in Japan or much of Western Europe.

How many of these people really belong in a lockup? …