An outsider’s view –3, U.S. incarceration rate highest in world:Slash it by half to help balance budget
Posted on September 8th, 2011

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

Professor emeritus of mass communications, Minnesota State University Moorhead

 Imagine the entire population of Utah, close to 2.3 million, put behind bars for committing a variety of felonies and other offenses.

Also, imagine the entire population of Minnesota, about 4.9 million, put on probation or in parole at the same time.

Even the merry Yankee Doodles of Connecticut would think I have concocted a fib if I were to tell them that at year-end 2009 some 2.3 million resident adults were languishing in federal and state prisons and county jails of good ole America, which stands for “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Would not they feel miffed if I were to tell them that at year-end 2009 another 4. 9 million adults were on probation or in parole in good ole America?

You might want to yell, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics,” as Mark Twain would. In that case, I would ask you to cross cudgels with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), my source of data. America’s incarceration figures are way too high in terms of both absolute total (2.3 million) and relative size per 100,000 of national population (743 adults), the highest in the world. In comparison, Russia has the second highest (577 per 100,000). The incarceration rates per 100,000 for Israel (324), South Africa (314) and Brazil (253) are on the high side compared with the rates for Mexico (200), Spain (159), England and Wales (154), Sri Lanka (153), Australia (133), China (120), Canada (117), Italy (113), France (96), Germany (85), Japan (59) and India (32).

While Americans represent only about 5 percent of the world’s population, they account for one-quarter of the entire world’s incarcerated inmates! Altogether about 7.2 million (or 3.1 percent) of the U.S. adult population — equivalent in size to the total population of Virginia — was under correctional supervision in 2009.

From my outsider’s point of view, I see this hefty incarceration rate as too much of a burden on the U.S. taxpayer drowning in a sea of deficits and debts. Because incarceration and execution are both terribly cost-ineffective methods of dealing with criminals, the Vera Institute has advised the states to reduce their prison population, and adopt more cost-effective alternatives to protect public safety.

Data show that it costs an average of $3.42 a day ($1,248 per year) to keep a prisoner on probation, and $7.47 ($2,727 per year) to keep that same prisoner on parole. In contrast, it costs an average of $78.95 each day ($28,817 per year) to keep a criminal behind bars. A simple calculation shows that we are currently spending $66 billion to keep 2.3 million people behind bars with no significant added value.

The U.S. needs to reconsider the relationship between crime and punishment. Some analysts say that the U.S. has reached the current “bulge” in incarceration by legislating longer mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses and thefts. They point out to two laws in particular that brought about the illusory “bulge” in incarceration:

  • Reagan’s 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, used as a weapon to win the War on Drugs that began in the 1970s, mandated judges to slam long prison sentences on drug violators, who happened to be predominantly Afro-American, Latino and female. It trapped into incarceration some one-half million poverty-stricken minorities over the last quarter century.
  • The Three strike laws (enforced by many states in the 1990s), which slammed a mandatory 25-year incarceration on third-time offenders, further expanded the size of the U.S. prison population with no focus on rehabilitation.

 Human Rights Watch asserts that the extraordinary rate of incarceration in the U.S. wreaks havoc on individuals, families and communities, and saps the strength of the nation as a whole.  The current U.S. criminal justice policy focuses on punishment, rather than on rehabilitation. Critics have blamed this policy for the unusually high rate of recidivism, which brings the majority of released prisoners back into incarceration within a year of their release.

Considering the foregoing, I would ask the U.S. Congress to try out the Buddhist approach to dealing with crime and punishment: Apply the vinaya (discipline) approach that the Buddhist clergy used to discipline recalcitrant monks for more than 2,500 years: Find a way to shift our focus from punishing guilt to reforming intention.

Simple arithmetic tells us that the federal and state governments spend $137.5 billion of our tax money on incarceration. If our judiciary can cut by one-half the maximum incarceration period the law allows them to impose on a criminal, it alone will produce a tidy $68.7 billion to narrow the existing budget deficits.

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