America Behind Bars: Reform's Time at Hand?

By Peirce, Neal | Nation's Cities Weekly, August 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

America Behind Bars: Reform's Time at Hand?


Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly


The rest of the world is starting to notice the United States' incarceration follies.

Case in point: "Why America locks up so many people," the recent cover story of the British-based Economist magazine, showing the face of a forlorn Statue of Liberty behind bars.

The grim statistics noted: Some 2.3 million people, more than the population of 15 of our states, are now incarcerated--one in 100 adults. That's quadruple our 1970 imprisonment rate. For hard-to-defend reasons, and at staggering fiscal cost, we incarcerate people at a rate five times Great Britain's, nine times Germany's, 12 times Japan's.

Congress is on the brink of our first national reassessment in many decades. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) is proposing a National Criminal Justice Commission to take an 18-month, stem-to-stem look at the system, its shortcomings and alternatives. Webb's bill recently passed the House without opposition; now the question is whether the Senate (where the measure has 39 co-sponsors) can avoid a procedural objection by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and bring it to a vote.

The Economist notes that along with truly dangerous serial rapists and murderers, as well as Bernie Madoff-like whitecollar criminals we want to punish severely, the United States incarcerates astounding numbers of low-level blue- and white-collar offenders.

Among them are street-level drug dealers (generally quickly replaced), people accused of such violations as embezzling, driving without an operator's license or transgressing environmental laws. In addition to voluminous state laws, there are some 4,000 federally defined offenses backed up by thousands more regulations--many virtually impossible for any layman to comprehend.

The Economist tells the story of George Norris, a 65-year-old Texan who imported orchids. He was suddenly accosted ha his home by armed police in flak jackets, frisked, held incommunicado for four hours as officers ransacked his home, and eventually charged with smuggling flowers into America, a violation of the Convention on International Trade ha Endangered Species.

Norris, who believed himself innocent though he admitted some of his Latin American flower suppliers might have been sloppy in their paperwork, had never made more than $20,000 a year ha his importing business. But he was thrown into prison with suspected murderers and drug dealers, accused of being the "kingpin" of an international smuggling ring, ultimately sentenced to 17 months--and then, despite his condition with Parkinson's disease, put ha solitary confinement for 71 days for bringing prescription sleeping pills with him to prison.

The tough question raised by the Norris case and others like it: Are some prosecutors going overboard, using their extraordinary powers beyond clear justice requirements?

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