Today I want to talk about a news item I pulled off the Internet. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the number of U.S. citizens spending time in our prison population has been growing. Today U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech in California that our prison system is “outsized and unnecessarily large”. Most people don’t realize just how out of control our prisons have become though. According to statistics on Wikipedia (take that for what it is worth) the number of adult in our U.S. prisons was 2,266,800 or about 0.7% of the adult population. When you add in 4,814,200 more adults that were on probation or parole, the total comes out to 2.9%, almost 3% of the adult population.
The real surprising number is that the total has increased by 4 fold from about 500,000 in 1980 while during the same time, the population did not increase by 4 fold. There is a ton of additional statistics on the Wikipedia site (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States) but my point is not to go through the statistics. Rather, my point is more aligned with Eric Holder’s question as to whether we are incarcerating more offenders just to simply “warehouse and forget” about them or if we should have a judicial system that focused on the cause of crime, the just punishment for the crime, the deterring of criminal offenses, and the rehabilitation of those found guilty. Mr. Holder also states that we cannot prosecute or incarcerate our way to a safer nation.
We cannot simply turn every criminal loose just because we want to keep the size of our prisons down. Without punishment as a deterrent, what would cause people to hesitate before committing a crime? Some say that many criminals are not deterred by punishment anyway. So maybe, we as a nation need to focus on determining why people turn to crime. Is it due to lack of good job opportunities? Are those opportunities reduced because our education system has resulted in workers that are inferior to foreign workers? What affect, if any, does the challenge to our work ethics by all of the government programs that promise free money, free services, and free food, destroy the very fabric of our society?
Then once a person is labeled as a criminal, where is the rehabilitation? Where is the opportunity to start over? Would you want a criminal living next door to you or your children? Why is the immediate reaction, ‘No’! Is it because we all know that criminals in prisons are not rehabilitated as much as prisons are a training ground to how to commit other crimes? Even if a person was sent to jail for a non-violent offense such as unpaid debt, stealing money from their employer, or simple shoplifting which they did because it was the only way they could provide for their family, what can they do when they get out? They now have a record. That record is worse than a scarlet ‘A’ on their chest. No one will hire them. No one will trust them. No one will give them a chance to show that they will work an honest job for a fair pay that will support their families. Where is the rehabilitation?
Again, not everyone charged with a crime should be released. Mass murderers, kidnappers of children, and dozens of other crimes sometimes need to be warehoused and forgotten. However, how much better for everyone would it be to provide non-prison sentences that may include community service, work projects, or other activities be for low-level nonviolent crimes? Perhaps even having minor offenses expunged from the records for some low-level crimes to give that person a chance at a new law-abiding life.
It will be interesting to see if this speech made to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates will make a difference or whether like so many other grand speeches it falls on deaf ears. Just for the record, the United States has the highest incarceration rate per 100,000 people of any other country in the world. That number is 716. Even Cuba is only 510, Russia is 484 and England is a mere 148. The current estimate is that it costs around $22,000 a year to keep a person in prison. According to CNN, we spend an average of only $10,615 per student per year to provide public education. Granted, variations exist by state and of course there are far more students than criminals. However, it is not the total spent, but the amount spent per person that seems out of line.
Anyway, I just wanted to give you something to think about thanks to Eric Holder’s speech.
C’ya next time.