The Prison Problem


If you aren't aware of the "prison problem" you probably aren't alone. In a nutshell, the U.S. prison population has exploded over the last few decades and the system seems on the edge of failing. It was OK (although the numbers were a national embarrassment) until the recent economic crisis brought a spotlight on just how much we were paying to put people away.

I'm not against incarceration for crimes and no one thinks the solution is just to let everyone out. But there is broad agreement that the situation (more than 2 million currently serving time) is bad and getting worse. Why is it that we have the highest percentage of our population locked up? Are we just a more criminal society?

This graph shows the dramatic upswing:

The striking rise in inmates is due to a couple of things. First was the war on drugs and longer prison sentences for felony drug convictions. Secondly, mandatory minimums for some crimes. Third, three strikes and you're out laws.

Crime hasn't gone up in the period enough to justify the increase, but mathematically, when you hold someone longer, any new additions start piling up. A guy who is in prison for life for a series of drug offenses is there for 40 years or more. He gets counted every one of those 40 years, along with new convicts who come in during that time.

The estimate is that about half of the prison population are non-violent drug offenders and candidates for treatment. I couldn't find hard statistics to back this up, but the problem seems obvious. If you keep incarcerating about the same number of people a year, but don't let as many go, the graph will continue to rise upwards.

Are there easy solutions? Doubtful. Those citizens who are not criminals see little reason to release those who are. Hardliners will say things are as they should be -- Do the crime, do the time.

I might fall into that camp except that I think there is something to be said about long-term incarceration harming families as well as those in prison. Are we breeding more criminals when we destroy a family to put one away for decades?

Maybe it needs another look. Drug courts are a good alternative -- maybe saving those who can be saved. Reducing mandatory minimums might help. Allowing judges to decide when one individual deserves less of a sentence than another might help.

The bottom line is that things aren't going to get any better if we stay on the track we are on. As these prisoners age, because they are not eligible for senior citizen benefits or healthcare, the burden on the system is only going to get worse.


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