A Nation Behind Bars 

A Nation Behind Bars 
Posted by CN Staff on April 14, 2003 at 09:19:50 PT
Source: Washington Post 
Imagine that the United States locked up the populations of Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota and then threw in the nation of Iceland for good measure. The result would be an inmate population of approximately the same size as the one currently behind bars in the United States. Last year, for the first time in American history, the states and the federal government -- in jails and in prisons around the country -- had more than 2 million people behind bars, according to Justice Department statistics.
Those locked up included 1.3 percent of all males in this country, 4.8 percent of all black males -- and a shocking 11.8 percent of black men between the ages of 20 and 34. The dramatic rise in the prison population has created a nation of prisoners within American society. While hidden from the view, and even the consciousness, of most Americans, the existence of this nation forces those on the outside to ask, in turn, what kind of nation they want to live in.There is no magic "right" number of people to have in prison; that will properly vary with crime rates and popular attitudes toward criminals. But there is something breathtaking about the current figure. The U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world; according to data from the British Home Office, the only countries with rates close to it are the Cayman Islands and Russia. It is nearly seven times the rate in Canada and more than four time the rate in the United Kingdom, which leads Europe. It also represents an enormous rise by the standards of even recent American history. According to criminologist Alfred Blumstein, the rate of imprisonment stayed stable between the 1920s and the 1970s. Since the 1970s, however, it has increased several times over.The logic of tougher sentencing regimes and extended prison terms for drug offenders has long since become circular. When crime persists in the face of tougher sentences, many policymakers conclude that the sentences need to be tougher still. The cycle has proven enormously difficult to break, in large measure because popular sentiment makes the tough-on-crime posture politically irresistible. But keeping an ever-growing number of people locked up has huge costs: the financial costs associated with maintaining a nation of inmates, the human costs in the wrecked lives of those who could have been rehabilitated under different policies, the costs to society when people are finally released after years of prison socialization. There are also moral costs -- hard to define yet real nonetheless. For the incarceration rate reflects on some level the rate at which a society gives up on its members. And 2 million is a huge number to give up on.Source: Washington Post (DC)Published: Sunday, April 13, 2003; Page B06 Copyright: 2003 Washington Post Contact: letterstoed washpost.comWebsite: Related Articles:The War at Home -- Sojourners Magazine Too Many People Are Behind Bars Prison Population Tops 2 Million American Gulag in The Making 
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