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'Get tough' policies are leading more to prison

U.S. prisons and jails held more than 1,630,000 people in mid-1996, more than double the number from the mid-1980s, according to a Justice Department report released last week.

By the end of 1995, 1 out of every 167 Americans was in prison or jail, compared to 1 out of every 320 a decade earlier, according to the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. The world's highest incarceration rate has seesawed in recent years between the United States and Russia, with both far outdistancing other nations.

The bureau reported that the nation's prison and jail population grew by an average of nearly 8 percent a year between mid-1985 and June 30, 1996. The steep increase reflected a number of get-tough laws that have been adopted by the federal government and the states in an effort to put more serious criminal offenders in prison for longer periods of time.

While the number of prisoners in this country has more than doubled in the past 20 years, the numbers on parole are even greater. The vast majority have been convicted of drug-related offenses. Astonishingly, nearly one in three young black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under criminal justice supervision on any given day. The "War on Drugs" is the single largest factor contributing to this crisis facing the black community.

With the new wave of harsh sentencing laws (such as "three strikes and you're out"), the one-in-three figure is likely to get even worse soon. One 1995 prison survey found that state corrections officials expect their 1994 inmate populations to rise 51 percent by the year 2000.

In recent years, African-American women have experienced the greatest increase in criminal justice supervision of all demographic groups. Their rate of criminal justice supervision rose by 78 percent from 1989-94.

The number of black (non-Hispanic) women incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses increased more than eightfold, by 828 percent, from 1986 to 1991.

While African-American arrest rates for violent crime -- 45 percent of arrests nationally -- are disproportionate to that group's share of the population, this proportion has not changed significantly for 20 years. For drug offenses, though, the African-American proportion of arrests increased from 24 percent in 1980 to 39 percent in 1993, well above the African-American percentage of drug users in the national population.

African-Americans and Hispanics now constitute almost 90 percent of offenders sentenced to state prison for drug possession.

The Department of Justice has ignored its own 1994 report, which questioned the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentencing, and now sides with the Republican-dominated Congress in opposing the Sentencing Commission's downward revision of crack cocaine sentences to the level of powder cocaine. The crack/powder disparity is a major factor in the racial bias in today's criminal justice system.

This incredible state of affairs, where 3 out of every 100 of your neighbors is involved with our criminal justice system, is a direct result of the efforts of politicians who have discovered during the past decade that Americans love politicians who promise to "get tough on crime." We have elected these people, and they have begun to deliver on their harsh promises. We have built more and more prisons, creating a quickly evolving "prison-industrial complex."

In this complex, millions of dollars are funneled to the contractors, vendors, guards, police, judges, parole officers, lawyers, bailiffs, court reporters, and the communities that process and hold criminals in prisons. Now thousands of people have jobs in the criminal justice industry, and their livelihoods depend on criminal justice. Our nation has a growing vested interest in keeping millions of Americans behind bars.

We have also adopted a number of "tough" policies of questionable value: treating juveniles as adults, developing new, more intrusive lock-down policies in our maximum security prisons, fewer living comforts in prison, "three strikes and you're out" (for life) laws, truth in sentencing laws, mandatory minimum sentences.

Some "reformers" are now advocating the return of chain gangs, corporal punishment, use of electroshock control devices, the holding of prisoners in unheated tents during the winter months and a wide expansion of the death penalty.

Where will this end?

Leading the charge for a "safer" society are conservatives and moderates, both Democrats and Republicans, who see crime "prevention" methods as "pro-family" policies. Meanwhile, these same conservatives and moderates advocate social and economic policies that tend to produce a larger and larger underclass.

Clearly, something has to be done about crime. But are our crime-fighting strategies working?

Building more prisons does not reduce crime. States with high incarceration rates often have high levels of violent crime. For example, from 1980 to 1992, California spent $3.8 billion on prison construction and quadrupled its prison population, yet violent crime rates continued to rise.

Incarceration, meanwhile, is cost-prohibitive. The average annual cost of incarceration per maximum-security inmate is about $35,000. Projected costs of "three strikes and you're out" laws are so staggering ($5.5 billion annually in California) that some states may never fully implement them.

The threat of punishment does not deter violent behavior. Using punishment as a deterrent assumes rational thinking and decision-making among those committing crimes. But experts say much violent crime is "an impulsive response to an immediate stressful situation," often committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

We need once again to take the unpopular road of assessing the conditions in society that lead to crime and then begin working to eradicate those conditions. Generally speaking, that would include:

  • social and employment programs that would instill a sense of hope and community investment for young families and youth;
  • strengthening a sense of neighborhood and community ownership through localized neighborhood development programs, especially where they address immediate social problems;
  • recognizing and educating ourselves about the relationship between anti-social behavior and wider family, educational, economic, political and cultural factors.

No "get tough" policies get to the roots of those problems that are leading so many U.S. minority persons into the prisons and the criminal justice system. Walls and prison guards are inadequate and, in the final analysis, unworthy of a nation that prizes "liberty and justice for all."

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 1997