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May 23, 2006 - Daytona Beach News-Journal (FL)

Jails 'R' U.S.

One In Every 136 Americans Behind Bars

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The idea of locking criminals away for a long, long time appeals to Americans. The notion makes them feel safe. They couldn't be more wrong.

Statistics released Monday by the U.S. Justice Department show that the United States has the highest incarceration rate among democratic nations, and the rate keeps growing, outpacing the growth in overall population by double or more.

As of mid-year 2005, one person was in jail or prison for every 136 Americans. Incarceration is increasing significantly in the South -- in Florida, the number of people in jail or prison increased at more than twice the national rate.

Supporters of that trend attribute decreases in the crime rate to the national lock-'em-up mentality. But decreases in crime rate are almost always associated with reductions in poverty and unemployment.

The increases in the number of people behind bars has everything to do with changes in drug policy and the increased popularity of "minimum mandatory" sentences that pile decades on to prison terms.

While crime is decreasing, the picture is far from rosy. This country has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world -- the category of crime that strikes most fear into Americans.

The murder rate, for example, is three times higher than that of Canada or Great Britain. The United States leads the world in assaults and rapes. These rankings haven't changed despite the U.S. penchant for locking up more people.

The policies of former administrations' failed "wars" on drugs lashed out predominantly at African-American populations by attaching higher penalties to drugs (like crack cocaine) favored by black addicts.

Crack is one of the least-used of the illegal drugs in the United States according to Human Rights Watch, but it's one of the primary focuses of police investigation -- and one of the most significant reasons why nearly 40 percent of the prison population is black.

The injustice behind these racial inequities isn't the only cost. American taxpayers pay -- and pay and pay -- to build cells, hire guards and house inmates. And as soon as governments build facilities, they are filled: Last summer, 95 percent of jail beds were occupied. This points to a new trend. More inmates are being held in local jails -- placing a strain on local resources -- rather than being sent to prison.

By pushing the problem down to counties and cities, federal and state lawmakers relieve the strain on their own budgets -- and duck the hard questions about the growing incarceration rate and how it's warping justice nationwide.

The push to local jails also further dilutes any attempts at rehabilitation, which was once a significant and successful component of prison policy.

The incarceration trends show a nation headed in the wrong direction -- locking its troubles out of sight rather than confronting them. Increasing the prison population won't make Americans safer, but it will increase misery, hopelessness and public expense.

The Entire USDOJ-BJS Study, Prisoners at MidYear 2005, is available here. (PDF Format)

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