Academic journal article Theological Studies

Just Punishment and America's Prison Experiment

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Just Punishment and America's Prison Experiment

Article excerpt

ELLIOTT CURRIE IN HIS STUDY Crime and Punishment in America has argued that since 1972 the United States has been engaged in an unprecedented, unparalleled, and largely unnoticed social experiment, "testing the degree to which a modern industrial society can maintain public order through the threat of punishment" or, more specifically, imprisonment.(1) Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project makes a similar point in Race to Incarcerate, noting that "during this period public policy in the U.S. has resulted in ... a second wave of the great `experiment' in the use of incarceration as a means of controlling crime."(2) As Mauer's quote implies and David Rothman convincingly established in The Discovery of the Asylum, America's fascination with penitentiaries and stiff sentences is not new but reaches back to the early days of the Republic.(3) Still, this most recent prison experiment, which has sought to determine "whether a massive and unprecedented use of imprisonment would effectively control crime," has generated a corrections boom which is extraordinary even by U.S. standards and has led to the construction of the largest prison system in human history aimed at controlling crime.(4)

The scope and impact of this experiment, the flip side of our nation's long-running wars on crime and drugs, may be measured in a variety of ways. Between 1972 and 1998 the population of our state and federal prisons more than sextupled, growing from less than 200,000 to over 1.2 million. By mid-1999 the total U.S. prison and jail populations was 1,860,520 (not counting an additional 161,01 4 prisoners or offenders held or supervised elsewhere, nor the nearly 4 million others on parole or probation) and was projected to reach 2 million by the end of 2001. This means that one out of every 147 persons in this country is behind bars and that our national incarceration rate (682 per 100,000) is 5 to 8 times that of other industrialized democracies and only fractionally smaller than that of Russia (685 per 100,000), the world's leading jailer.(5) As a result, the U.S., with about half a million more prisoners than China, not only imprisons many more people than any other nation, but has about a quarter of all the prisoners in the world behind its bars.(6)

Although some of this growth has no doubt been related to fluctuations both in crime--especially violent crime--rates and in shifting demographics, noted criminologist Norval Morris sides with Currie and a number of other commentators in arguing that most increases in our prison population have been the result of policy changes regarding sentencing, in particular for drug offenders.(7) Beginning with New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws (1973), Massachusetts Bartley-Fox Amendment (1975), and Michigan's Felony Firearms Statute (1977), a wave of "tough-on-crime" bills in state legislatures has replaced indeterminate sentences with so-called "truth-in-sentencing" laws calling for mandatory minimums, stiff sentencing guidelines, and the more recent "three-strikes" rule.(8) On the federal level, the Sentencing Reform Act (1984), the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1988), and the Omnibus Crime Control Bill (1994) have all moved in similar directions.(9) The results have been more and significantly stiffer prison sentences being handed down for a broad array of crimes, the sextupling of our prison population, and a noticeably disproportionate increase in the numbers of non-violent criminals, particularly drug offenders, being sent to and kept in prison. Indeed, the greatest increases in our prison population over the past three decades have been the result of jailing low-level nonviolent drug offenders who would not previously have been incarcerated.(10)

The financial costs of this prison experiment have been staggering. In order to keep up with an inmate population that grows by 50,000 to 80,000 a year, approximately, 1,000 new jails and prisons have been built since 1980, and about one new 1,000 bed facility will need to be added every week through most of the upcoming decade. …

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