March 3, 2024

Why the U.S. leads in incarcerations


Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Why the U.S. leads in incarcerations

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The U.S. puts people in jail at a higher rate than any other country, a practice that is becoming unsustainable both financially and morally.  With just five percent of the world’s population, a quarter of the world’s prison population is incarcerated in U.S. facilities, with as many as half doing time for nonviolent drug charges.

Mandatory minimums are a big part of the problem. Embraced by both political parties in the 1970s as part of the war on crime and the war on drugs, they have ballooned the number of people jailed.

Now, Attorney General Eric Holder has declared that the administration is committed to reducing the prison population, and that he is instructing federal attorneys to use prosecutorial discretion and avoid bringing cases for drug possession and petty drug crimes that trigger sentences disproportionate to the crime.

It’s a radical step, and to the extent that it is implemented, could go a long way toward de-criminalizing drug abuse. If carried out successfully, it could have a substantial impact on lowering the prison population.

It’s also the right thing to do. Prison is not a place for rehabilitation; it’s a school for crime. Put away an 18-year-old for a minor drug event, and however many years later when he gets his freedom, he’s unlikely to become a model citizen.

President Obama has admitted to drug use when he was a young man, proof enough that the strong arm of the law is not indicated whenever drugs are involved. Obama was not harassed, and many young people who experiment with drugs never encounter the law. But those who do can pay far too great a penalty, which makes this a civil-rights issue as much as it has to do with law and order.

Interestingly, there was no great hue and cry to Holder’s speech at the American Bar Association. Violent crime has been dropping, and people aren’t as focused on long sentences for offenders the way they once were.  State budgets are stressed, and officials are looking for a way to lower a prison population that has gotten out of hand in recent years.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has joined arms with the NAACP in calling for reform. He comes at it from the financial perspective, saying that in California it costs as much as $50,000 a year to house a single prisoner. That’s not a good deal for taxpayers if the person held is guilty of nothing more than drug abuse, and has not inflicted harm on another person.

Holder is in a position to make an impact because of who he is, and how he can elevate this issue. But practically his reach is limited by the law and by Congress. Federal inmates make up a small portion of the prison population, just 14 percent, and without Congress taking action, all Holder can do is suggest prosecutorial discretion.  Enforcement is another matter, and it’s not immediately clear whether Holder has a strategy to do that.

Still, the trend line is there. States are grappling with a prison population they can’t afford, and have begun to put reforms in place. Texas is among those leading the way, instituting alternative programs and offering drug abuse rehab instead of jail sentences, and the results have been positive – no increase in crime, a decrease in prisoners. It comes down to an attitude adjustment that de-criminalizes drugs and reserves prison for those who really should be there, and not those who should be passing through.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.


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