Monday, April 2, 2012

Prisons in a "civilized" nation

What country has the world's highest incarceration rate, as measured by inmates per 100,000 people? Is it a communist country like Cuba or China? Or a chaotic, poor country like Rwanda? Or Putin's Russia?

As Fareed Zakaria points out in an excellent article (only a portion linked, as the whole thing is behind a pay-wall), the United States dominates all other countries when it comes to locking up its own people. The incarceration rate is 25% higher than the rate in any other country in the world, and it's 3 times the rate of any other large/wealthy country (Brazil). Even comparing our present to our past shows our current system is out of control. Our incarceration rate was only a quarter of its current level just in 1980.

It's not like our prisons are a model of rehabilitation, or even safety. A recent study by the federal Department of Justice, as reported in Reason, estimated that over 200,000 inmates are sexually assaulted every year. In 2003, Congress unanimously passed Prison Rape Elimination Act. A bipartisan commission came up with a batch of solutions to the toxic environment in our prisons. These solutions were rejected by Attorney General Eric Holder on the grounds that they would be too expensive to implement.

Even without trying to implement a system where we don't allow our citizens to be raped while in our prisons, we spend a fabulous amount of money on prisons. Zakaria discusses that the rate of increase in prison spending has increased 6 times faster than spending on higher education since 1992. In my lifetime, California has built one college and 21 prisons.

So what's the solution? One easy place to start is to roll back the War on Drugs, which we'll discuss more in the near future. The rate of arrests for possession went up tenfold between 1980 and 1996. There were 1.66 million arrests in 2009 for possession. By not wasting billions locking up stoners for simple possession, we can free up enough money to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act recommendations and to put some money back into states' coffers.

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