Incarceration Nation

Filed in National by on May 5, 2014

Much is being written recently about the appalling status of incarceration rates in the U.S.A.  Not much is being done.  All sorts of causal factors are cited: the War on Drugs, poverty, moral breakdown, the economy, mental illness, demise of the social contract…..the list is endless.

Solutions don’t seem to be endless. International comparisons are shocking.  We’re number one in rate of incarceration world-wide.

Something in excess of 2 million of our citizens languish in federal and state prisons and local jails.  One telling piece of data suggests that 2 of 3 prisoners will be jailed again in three years post-release.   State prison numbers tell us about 53% of convictions are for violent acts, 18.3 % property issues, 16.8% drug convictions and 10.6% public order issues such as illegal weapons.  Obviously many crimes involve several of these categories together.

Little Delaware figures prominently in position # 6 for violent crime and # 13 for property charges.  Most shocking to me was 86.8 % of Delaware drug convictions involve African Americans.  The numbers indicate locally and nationally that drug use rates are comparable between African Americans and Anglo Americans.   What’s up here?  I’ll  leave the assessment up to you, dear readers.

Overall, though accounting for 13% of the U.S. population,  African Americans comprise about 39% of the prison population; the ratio is similar in Delaware, so no slack is cut here locally.

These numbers are causing a much needed national conversation and criminal justice reform activism is heating up, but way too slowly by my observation.  Reforms are all over the lot; some focus on our absurd commercial bail bond system; other on pre-trial detention, the small number of convictions via jury and bench trials vs. plea bargains,  better representation for the poor population with public defenders, sentencing guidelines.  The most explosive growth in the past 30 years ties to drug convictions. So drug policy is being revisited.

We as a nation seem not to have resolved our philosophy regarding incarceration; ie: rehabilitation vs. punishment.  That debate rages on.  Endlessly.

I find it ironic that much of the reform movement in the criminal justice system lately to reduce the prison population comes from the right.  They are focused on the cost issues.   The right is also taking the initiative regarding the stunning statistic that something in the area of 25% of the prison population suffer severe mental illness.  Further, some of that population is  getting in-prison treatment and the imprisoned mentally ill outnumber the hospitalized mentally ill.

I would have expected that Democrats have seen the error of their ways in defensively reacting to charges of being “soft on crime” back in the 70’s and 80’s and tolerant of drug use by putting the hammer down on offenders.  But I do not see and hear from my fellow Democrats a major embrace of criminal justice reform.  We appear to me to be the advocates of the status quo in the criminal justice world, though much of our coalition is severely impacted by injustice in our criminal justice system.

Solutions, anyone?





About the Author ()

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Classiccom says:

    American Indians were prone to alcohol addiction, obviously blacks have similar genetic makeup that makes them more prone to drug addiction. But taking a tip from Donald Sterling, a conversation about race in America is no longer possible. Best solution – follow Portugal’s drug legalization program.

    ‘This Is Working’: Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing Drugs

  2. puck says:

    The solution? Jobs of course. And mental health treatment.

    “State prison numbers tell us about 53% of convictions are for violent acts, 18.3 % property issues, 16.8% drug convictions and 10.6% public order issues such as illegal weapons.”

    I was surprised by these numbers. I had assumed most incarceration was due to non-violent drug crimes. But these numbers suggest that reforms based on lower-level drug crimes or race will not have the impact I thought. Once you let out the poor black guys who got caught with a little weed, who do you let out next?

    The rise in incarceration and the racial unfairness of it corresponds to the recent degradation of law. I think the turning point was US vs Singleton (1998). In a moment of sanity, a three-judge panel of 10th Circuit Court correctly identified that prosecutors’ offering witnesses reduced penalties in return for testimony amounted to bribery and should be prohibited. Of course prosecutors freaked out and the full 10th quickly met to overturn the ruling, essentially stating that the government has the right to bribe witnesses because, well just because.

    Then of course there was the SC decision that allowed law enforcement to seize assets prior to a conviction. And the ridiculous military toys given to Barney Fife by Homeland Security. And the unfathomable cases that let gangs of rogue cops off the hook for clearly murdering unarmed detainees in a blood frenzy. And the privatization of prisons and prison service that put a profit motive behind incarceration.


  3. bamboozer says:

    Remove the revenge factor from the judicial system, howling for blood conservatives or not. Decriminalize marijuana and make jail for the violent only. End the hated, failed and destructive drug war and get rid of all mandatory sentences so the judges can do their work. In short, roll it back to “the good old days” of the fifties.

  4. Aint's Taking it Any More says:

    Fixing any piece of this problem takes balls – big ones. The political class is not known to have them.

    It takes balls for a politician to even suggest criminal justice reform let alone to follow through.

    This problem ain’t going away in my lifetime.

  5. cassandra_m says:

    The states that are taking on criminal justice reform are doing it mainly because the costs of the punitive system are killing them. California has huge problems with prison overcrowding and a criminal justice system that sends everyone to jail — doesn’t care if you are a violent or non-violent offender, doesn’t provide any treatment, just long sentences that damage their capacity for employment when they get out. CA is looking at dealing with non-violent offenders differently because they can’t afford to keep sending people to prison — and, of course, those creaming the loudest for punitive justice are those least willing to pay the taxes to maintain the prison state they want.