Unfree in America
Stopped by the police
IT IS EASY to see why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world when a convicted felon in California gets 50 years to life for shoplifting $153.54 in children's videotapes from Kmart.
But a new report by the Justice Department on incarceration rates shows just how counterproductive get-tough state and federal sentencing laws have become. Reform is needed to prevent future generations from being rounded up and sent off to prison for nonviolent crimes that would be better addressed with restitution and other sanctions short of jail time.
The first-ever report on incarceration rates by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released earlier this month, found that 5.6 million people, or 1 in 37 adults, were in prison or had once served time as of Dec. 31, 2001.
That startling fact has vaulted the United States past Russia as the world's leading incarcerator. If the rate continues, 6.6 percent of US residents born in 2001 will go to prison at some point during their lives. Black males will have a 1 in 3 chance, Hispanic males 1 in 6, and white males a 1 in 17 chance of going to prison.
Those numbers can't be explained entirely by the growth in the US population or increased life expectancy any more than the recent drop in crime can be attributed to the fact that 16.6 percent of adult black males were in prison or had been there in 2001.
Last week the Justice Department released a separate study that showed violent crime and property crime falling in 2002 to their lowest levels in years. The report was fuel for those who argue that a high incarceration rate is the price society must pay for a lower crime rate. But only a handful of offenders are responsible for most violent crime.
Mandatory sentencing laws, three-strikes-and-you're-out policies, and the war on drugs have turned many prisons into repositories for small-time drug dealers and thieves. This has forced overcrowded conditions that have led some states to grant early release to truly violent offenders.
Attorney General John Ashcroft's policies would only make the problem worse.
Last month he directed all US attorneys to notify him whenever a federal judge imposes a criminal sentence for less time than recommended under federal guidelines, a move that would chill judicial discretion.
That directive has been opposed by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee known for his tough anticrime stance.
Sanctions for lawbreakers should vary according to the crime. A one-size-fits-all approach to fighting crime is no deterrent and is costly for society, as lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals should recognize.
And locking up a greater percentage of citizens than any other nation is not a milestone of American pride.
Mankind's most valuable possessions are privacy, solitude, and anonymity.