Then why do we have so many people in prison?
By Carl Petersen
“Minor drug offenders fill your prisons
You don’t even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars
Against the new non-rich”
– System of a Down (1)

We’re number one! “Since 2002, the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world.” (2) In a report covering 2012 and 2013, we were imprisoning people at a rate of 716 for every 100,000 people (.716 %). (3) By comparison, Russia’s rate was .475% and China’s was .121%. In the past 40 years our prison and jail population has increased over 500%. Factor in Americans who are on parole and the percentage of adult population under correctional control jumps to 3.1% or 6.7 million people. (4)

To be fair, there are countries that are not exactly forthcoming about the number of people that they are holding in political prisons and labor camps. Therefore, “it is possible that Cuba and North Korea are depriving a higher proportion of their citizens of their liberty.” (5) Regardless if we take the gold or the bronze, the fact that we actually make it to the medal round should be considered a national disgrace.

While the operators of private prisons are benefiting from these high incarceration rates, (the Corrections Corporation of America has increased its revenue by 500% in the past 20 years), the American Taxpayers are paying a high price. (6) In 2012, the states spent $53.3 billion on their correction departments. (7) For the 2014 budget, the Federal Bureau of Prisons requested $6.936 billion. (8) With a finite amount of resources available, this reduces the funds committed to other programs, including those that could divert people from a life of crime. For example, California has reduced its spending on higher education (when adjusted for inflation) by 13% since 1980 while increasing spending on prisons and associated programs by 436%. (9) Unfortunately, there are those who cannot see the irony in these statistics and argue for a continuation of the status quo.

Patrick H. Head, a District Attorney, says that “you could spend an unlimited amount of money on education and it will never eliminate crime. We have crime committed by people that have no respect for human life; we have crimes committed by people who have no respect for property…[criminals] will use that education and they will use that intellect in order to commit their crimes.” (10) Once I got past the fact that a public official would say that it is better to keep some people ignorant, I had to wonder who he was arguing with. Has there ever been a case where someone called for the elimination of all prisons? I also wonder if he recognizes how many people are in prison for crimes where the biggest victim is the person sitting in jail.

From 1980 to 2011, the number of drug offenders in jails or prisons rose from 41,000 to 501,500. (11) In 2012, half of all Federal prisoners were drug offenders. (12) This seems to have done little to stem the problem as the consequences of drug abuse cost our country $215 billion per year. (13) If insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” who will lead us out of the asylum? (14)

Early in the War on Drugs President Carter tried to get Congress to decriminalize the use of marijuana, saying that the “penalties against possession of the drug should not be more damaging than the drug itself.” (15) His efforts were unsuccessful and the Presidents who followed him pursued the war with a new vigor. Even as states take the lead on legalizing the medical use of marijuana (even its recreational use), the Federal government continues to push back. United States Attorneys have sent letters to local governments reminding them that “Congress placed marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and, as such, growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.” (16) This from a Justice Department headed by a man who has admitted to the use of not only marijuana, but also cocaine, during his younger years. Does Obama think that he would have become President if he had been caught by law enforcement during these times of youthful indiscretion?

Perhaps the decision-making on the Federal level would be better if they were listening to people of the front lines. For example, Lou Vince is “a nearly 20-year veteran of Los Angeles law enforcement organizations” and is currently a candidate for Los Angeles County Sheriff. (17) When I asked him to provide some thoughts on this subject for this blog, he stated up front that we needed “treatment instead of jail.” This is not the view of someone who is soft on crime. Instead, he recognizes that we can keep our communities and neighborhoods safer if we increase “the time deputies spend on the streets rather than spending our valuable resources on stopping minor drug offenses.”

While people who speak in favor of legalizing drugs tend to downplay their effects, Vince has seen these first hand and his personal observations are telling. “First, I have seen time and time again the senseless waste of life and the aftermath that the family experiences when a young adult who used heroin or prescription pills overdoses and dies. Secondly, I have seen people you might consider ‘John Q. Citizen’ take pills to mask some underlying problem only to end up in a cycle of addiction and criminalization that they just can’t get out of.” Specifically mentioned were those who “get involved with prescription pills to manage the pain of a work related injury or to ‘medicate’ themselves in order to manage some form of stress.” With this statement he has elevated the person with a drug problem from a loser who deserves to be incarcerated to person who deserves some help. This seems like a much better way to approach the problem.
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