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America Is the Largest Jailer in the World: Land of the Free?

Bars of Prison

Michael Coghlan

Mark Gordon - published on 07/31/14

Our nation's priorities ought to be a concern to all Christians, especially Catholics.
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Along with poverty, the collapse of the family, health care, education and other issues affecting social justice, our broken criminal justice system ranks among the most important.

Simply put, the United States is the largest jailer in the world by any statistical measure. What that says about our nation and its priorities ought to be a concern to all Christians, especially Catholics.

At only five percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners, with 2.2 million citizens incarcerated in federal and state prisons. That’s half a million more than our nearest competitor, China, which has a population four times as large as ours. And the rate of imprisonment in the United States is similarly prodigious: 707 prisoners per 100,000 of population, which far outstrips any other country with a population of at least a million. Our nearest competitors are Cuba (510), Rwanda (492) and Russia (470). China’s rate per 100,000 of population is 172.

According to the US Department of Justice, in 2012 nearly 7 million adults were under the supervision of the criminal justice system, either in jail or on probation or parole. That’s one of every 35 adults.  The racial distribution of these statistics is equally troubling. African-Americans, who constitute 12% of our population, are incarcerated at six times the rate of white Americans. Of the 2.2 million Americans in prison, one million are black. One in three black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point during his lifetime.

The cruel irony in these statistics is that the crime rate in the United States has been tumbling for three decades. Violent crime, property crime, murder, rape, robbery, larceny, assault, burglary, and motor vehicle thefts are all far below their 1980 rates, often halved. And yet the prison population in America has quadrupled, from half a million in 1980 to 2.2 million today, and the number of federal prisoners has grown by 790%.

What accounts for this explosion? The so-called “War on Drugs,” inaugurated under President Ronald Reagan and continued unabated by every president since.  

Incarceration for drug offenses has grown by 1200% since 1980. American prisons now house over half a million nonviolent offenders arrested and convicted for drug crimes. And yet, the number of drug abusers in the United States, while higher than in 1980, hasn’t grown nearly as steeply. Marijuana is still the leading drug of choice, followed by prescription drugs, but the rate of use among Americans has remained steady for well over a decade. What has changed is the degree and type of enforcement, including sentencing, but that enforcement has been applied unequally and, many say, unjustly.

For instance, the “War on Drugs” is often blamed for the disproportionate number of blacks in prison. And yet, drug use is hardly an exclusively African-American problem. Five times more whites admit to using illegal drugs, yet blacks are ten times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges. And when they are, sentences are longer. In fact, blacks spend nearly as long in prison on drug charges—58 months, on averageas whites spend for violent offenses.

What are the effects of these figures on people already struggling with poverty? According to Veronique de Rugy in an article at National Review, “the real tragedy is that so many children’s lives are destroyed along with those of their incarcerated parents. Over 50 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.”

Millions of Americans, having served time for nonviolent drug offenses, are emerging from prison to find their families ruined and their prospects for success in life irretrievably diminished. Meanwhile, the justice system turns a blind eye to corruption and theft in high places. As Bob Dylan once wrote: “Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.”

In the law, there is an important question, often deployed by the Roman advocate Cicero, which should be asked at this juncture: Cui bono? Who benefits? Who indeed has benefitted from 30 years of the War on Drugs and a quadrupling of our prison population? The list would include

  • Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies which have discovered in the war on drugs a virtually bottomless well of funding;
  • Federal and state correctional departments, and their vendors, which now account for $70 billion a year in public spending;
  • The private prison industry, notably Corrections Corporation of America, which has spent $14 million on lobbying since 2006 and now bills the government for 90,000 prisoners at over 60 company facilities;
  • And the drug cartels of Mexico and Central America, which have been enriched beyond imagination, enabling them to buy sophisticated weapons, destabilize local governments and even obtain the services of “too big to fail” banks.

So, why should all this matter to Catholic Christians? Because the Church’s teaching is first and foremost a beacon of good sense, and the American criminal justice system could use a little good sense. In 2000, the bishops of the United States released a pastoral statement titled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, And Restoration: A Catholic Perspective On Crime And Criminal Justice.” In the document, they recommended 11 points as foundations for policy making, including “rejecting simplistic solutions such as ‘three strikes and you’re out” and rigid mandatory sentencing,” “encouraging innovative programs of restorative justice” and “placing crime in a community context and building on promising alternatives that empower neighborhoods and towns to restore a sense of security.”

The good sense embedded in these proposals would go a long way to reducing the American prison population and help us avoid the destructive effects of incarceration on nonviolent offenders and their communities. They would also significantly reduce costs, and the money saved could then be redirected toward drug and alcohol treatment or building social capital like better housing, education, and employment. As things are, the United States must bear the ignominy of proclaiming itself the “land of the free” while simultaneously locking away a huge number of its citizens.

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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