Magazine article The Christian Century

The Price of Prisons

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Price of Prisons

Article excerpt

Americans seem to relish putting their fellow citizens behind bars. The numbers are staggering: though the U.S. has only 6 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Whereas the median incarceration rate among all countries is 125 prisoners per 100,000 people, the U.S. rate is 743 per 100,000--by far the highest in the world. (In England it's 153, in Japan 63.) As Senator James Webb (D., Va.) commented, "Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S. or we are doing something dramatically wrong in how we approach criminal justice."

Our country started doing something dramatically wrong in the 1980s, when President Reagan launched the War on Drugs, Congress passed laws that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses, and many states passed similar get-tough-on-crime laws. This led to a boom in incarcerations: more people who had no history of violence were imprisoned and offenders had to serve longer terms.

As Michelle Alexander recounts in this issue (p. 22), the punitive War on Drugs targeted blacks and Latinos--with devastating effects. Though blacks, whites and Latinos use and sell illegal drugs at about the same rate, blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be sent to prison.

Political liberals have for years decried a system that prefers sending young men of color from impoverished neighborhoods to prison for nonviolent offenses over helping them get an education and a job. Lately, some political conservatives have begun to recognize the wisdom in that complaint, for they have seen that mass incarceration is a waste of taxpayer money: it costs an enormous amount and doesn't make anyone safer. …

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