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August 13, 2009 -- Truthout (US)

Rethinking US Penal Policy

By Seth Sandronsky, Truthout Perspective

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The proportion of US citizens behind bars far exceeds that of every other nation on Earth. Further, there is a class and race dimension to US incarceration: blacks and Latinos are imprisoned at a much higher rate than are whites.

The total incarceration rate per 100,000 individuals, including federal and state imprisonment and local jail detention, is: 820 for whites, 5,126 for blacks, and 1,907 for Hispanics. Latinos represent the fastest-growing segment of the minority prison population, having risen from 5 percent of federal and state inmates in 1978 to 21 percent in 2007, write Hanna Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, and R. Jamil Jonna.

How did this incarceration frenzy come to loom so large in the US? Politics is part of the answer. State and federal lawmakers have drafted and passed increasingly tough sentencing laws, beginning during the 1980's "War on Drugs." The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act pushed judges to apply the longest prison terms allowable by law.

Some state lawmakers followed suit with the "tough on crime" approach. The 1990's spawned the "three strikes" law in California, expanding the prison population with mandatory life sentences for third-felony convictions. Next came the "10-20-life" law, which mandates that judges impose a life sentence penalty for shooting a victim during the commission of a felony crime.

As a result of such "tough on crime" laws, California's prison population has increased by 750 percent since the middle of the 1970's, according to a panel of three federal judges. (The population of California has increased 80 percent since 1970.) Recently, those judges ordered a reduction in the state's prison population by 27 percent, or 40,000 people, to decrease overcrowding.

Harsh policy alone does not account for the explosion of America's prison population. For the rest of the story, we turn to economics. Let us begin with a brief look at one example: spending policy.

In California in recent years, a higher percent of tax dollars went to prisons than to colleges and universities. New prison construction became a growth industry. However, once California's current budget crisis hit, the yawning gap between tax revenues and spending began to call these budget priorities into question. Suddenly, staffing 33 state prisons became untenable. Something had to give, and it did.

Before the three federal judges ordered a reduction of the state prison population, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers reached a new budget deal including deep spending cuts in government services, from health care to parks to schools -- and even to prisons.

Unemployment also factors into the imprisonment equation. In the US labor market, blacks and Hispanics are most likely to be last hired and first fired. Federal jobs data shows, month after month, in expansion and recession, that employers' demand for the labor services of nonwhites is weaker than their demand for the labor services of whites.

Weak demand for employment creates the conditions for an increased rate of imprisonment. Consider the slow, steady decline in the size of the US manufacturing work force that provided union jobs to minority workers during the quarter-century of prosperity after WWII. Since then, as international competition to US corporations grew, those companies shifted production abroad, drawn by lower wages and weaker environmental laws.

Also accounting for the fall in US factory jobs is a process that some economists call "technological unemployment," i.e. machines replacing people. This process had, and has, the effect of boosting the productivity of the fewer workers remaining employed.

The politics and economics of prison policy are two sides of the same coin. Meanwhile, the Great Recession may be creating the right conditions to shrink the US prison-industrial system. This opening creates both new perils and new prospects for the American public. While the recession encourages a calculated decrease in the prison population, new jobs programs could potentially help remedy racial discrepancies in unemployment. Hopefully, Americans will not miss this opportunity for a broad social discussion, and will forge more decent policies and begin to repair class and race injustice.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Contact him at

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