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April 30, 2005 - Daytona Beach News-Journal (FL)

Lock 'Em Up

America's Singleminded Response To Crime

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Every 11 minutes, prison doors slam shut behind another American. The combined population of state and federal prisons and local jails reached 2.1 million last year, a number that keeps growing.

Florida accounts for a sizeable portion of that growth, incarcerating nearly 85,000. Here, as in the rest of the country, the inmate population is mostly young, mostly male, disproportionately minority. Corrections will claim more than $2 billion of the state's budget for the coming fiscal year.

That doesn't include the money the state pays to support the court system, or the substantial sums each county spends on jails. And the inmates keep coming -- the growth of Florida's prison population far outpaces the increase in the general population.

Experts attribute the growth nationwide to the harshness of drug laws, a trend to give prison time for other convictions and the fact that inmates are more likely to serve longer sentences. Nearly half the inmates in this country are doing time for drug offenses.

Are we safer for it? Proponents of incarceration would argue that we are. The violent crime rate has been steadily dropping. But there are compelling reasons to doubt that the American lock 'em up mantra actually improves the safety of our cities and neighborhoods.

The U.S. incarceration rate has been growing steadily for the past 30 years, but the crime rate began to decline only 10 years ago.

That lends credence to statisticians who say the most single reliable indicator of the crime rate is the proportion of young males in the population. As the baby boom generation ages, that ratio has dropped -- and along with it, the number of crimes committed.

Yet it's hard to get around the fact that an increasing percentage of those young males are spending their 20s and 30s behind bars. That statistic hits some communities harder than others.

In Baltimore, nearly one in five black men between the ages of 20 and 30 is in custody. Yet the violent crime rate in some parts of the city actually increased, according to a Justice Policy Institute study of crime and recidivism in Maryland.

With so many people in prison, neighborhoods are losing the cohesion that provides an effective barrier against crime. The problem is fueled by the dead-end fate awaiting recently released convicts, who struggle to find jobs and re-establish family connections. Frustrated, many turn to crime again.

States, staggering under the burden of imprisoning more people, are beginning to look for alternatives. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush advocates drug treatment that diverts users away from prison. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing for a new emphasis on rehabilitation -- a move that is long overdue in the nation's largest prison system.

Congressional leaders have proposed legislation that would offer housing and employment assistance to inmates released from federal prison.

But a smarter approach would look at the policies that have put so many behind bars. Mandatory sentencing laws that strip discretion from judges are a dismal failure, sending people to prison for relatively minor crimes at massive public expense.

The nation's drug laws are a shambles, assessing arbitrary penalties that hit hardest at low-income criminals who use inexpensive, highly addictive street drugs like crack cocaine. Most prison programs aimed at rehabilitation have fallen victim to budget cuts or political posturing.

The growing prison numbers -- and public expense -- show that this is a course the United States can no longer afford to follow.

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