America is not a nation of criminals. We are not the most lawless country on earth. Our symbol is the light of freedom, not the darkness of the prison cell, or at least we like to think so. The numbers tell a different story.
America is not a nation of criminals. We are not the most lawless country on earth. Our symbol is the light of freedom, not the darkness of the prison cell, or at least we like to think so.
The numbers tell a different story.
America today leads the world in locking up its citizens, with 730 prisoners per 100,000 population. Russia weighs in at 522, but no other major country comes close. The U.S. incarceration rate is more than twice that of Iran, more than three times that of Brazil, more than five times that of China.
There are now more than 7 million Americans in jail, prison or parole, Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker. That’s more than the population of Massachusetts. It’s more than the population of Stalin’s Gulag at its height.
This is not some essential ingredient in the American experience, an inevitable product of our unique history or form of government. As recently as 1980, the U.S. was in the middle of the pack in terms of incarceration rate. Since then, the number of incarcerated Americans has grown fourfold.
What happened? We declared war on drugs, for starters, on the flawed assumptions that stiff penalties would discourage kids from smoking pot and that prisons were the best place to treat addiction.
We watched too many crime dramas on TV. “If it bleeds, it leads” became the media’s motto, not just in local TV news, but in local newspapers.
In reaction to exaggerated fear of crime, politicians, always eager to please, promised more police, more prisons and tougher sentences. In response to headlines painting judges as too lenient, legislatures created minimum mandatory sentences, taking away judges’ ability to use their judgment. In response to the Willie Horton scandal, so damaging to Michael Dukakis’ presidential bid in 1988, politicians cut back on work release and other re-entry programs that had been proven effective at keeping ex-convicts from getting in trouble again.
It was a bipartisan project. Here in Massachusetts, Republican William Weld was elected governor on a pledge to “introduce prisoners to the joy of breaking rocks.” The Democrats in the Legislature were happy to go along with more mandatory minimums, especially for headline horrors like sex abuse or crack cocaine. Criminals and their families were never a key constituency, even for the most liberal Dems.
Voters who clamored for “tough on crime” laws rarely saw the impact. Most of them don’t live in tough-luck neighborhoods where half the adult men are either in prison or have a prison record that keeps them from getting a good job. Most don’t have friends or relatives caught in the criminal justice system’s revolving door when what they really need is treatment for mental health and substance abuse.
Most voters don’t understand what Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian calls “trickle-down corrections”: Incarcerate a parent and, research shows, the likelihood that their children and grandchildren will someday land in prison increases dramatically. Crime, like poverty, passes from generation to generation.
Nor do they understand that, for most offenders, longer sentences have the opposite of a deterrent effect. Len Engel, senior policy analyst at the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, says the research is clear: the longer the stay in prison, the more likely the released convict is to be convicted again.
And most voters, even those who think of themselves as fiscal conservatives, don’t appreciate the cost of prison-centered social policies. Each prisoner costs taxpayers $50,000 a year to house, feed and guard. The growing number of aging, sick and dying prisoners costs taxpayers far more. When an inmate goes into intensive care, the state is stuck with the medical bills.
So the politicians keep selling the same old remedies. Last year, in reaction to a few horror stories, the Massachusetts Legislature passed tougher laws against sex trafficking. The new law includes five-year minimum mandatory sentences for pimps. No one — not even the Ways and Means Committee, which is charged with this kind of thing — bothered to estimate how many traffickers would be sent away under the new law, each of them costing the public at least $250,000.
Now they are getting ready to do it again. In reaction to the murder of a cop in Woburn by a violent criminal who had been released on parole, both houses of the Legislature have approved “habitual offender” bills that would automatically deny parole to anyone convicted of a third violent offense.
What crimes this “three strikes” provision would apply to is the topic of typically murky Beacon Hill negotiations, along with much more. Reform advocates included reductions in some mandatory minimums, increased post-release supervision and some other worthy improvements in their bill, but the House has balked at going beyond “three strikes.” There’s no credible estimate of what the bill, in its various iterations, will do to the state’s already overcrowded prisons, or what it will cost.
“This is not something Massachusetts does well,” Engel said. In other areas, like education reform in the 1990s and health care reform in the 2000s, the state has been a real leader, enacting comprehensive reforms that start by asking basic questions about what is needed and build consensus around solutions. But with criminal justice, Bay State leaders are purely reactive, improvising solutions based on keeping whatever made yesterday’s headline from happening again.
On criminal justice reform, the most impressive steps are being taken in the most conservative states, usually inspired by the need to save money in tough times. Engel has been working in Georgia, where the state Legislature just approved a law reducing sentences and investing in drug treatment and post-release supervision. States that approach this seriously also find that new strategies aren’t just cheaper, they improve public safety.
Texas has been a real leader. By sending more non-violent offenders to drug courts and treatment facilities, it has reduced its prison population by 8 percent, cut crime by 6 percent and saved $2 billion it had expected to spend on prison construction.
Those successes have made criminal justice reform a conservative cause. Republican luminaries Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich have formed an organization called “Right on Crime” to put reform on the national agenda.
Fixing the criminal justice system can be a bipartisan cause, just as appearing tough on crime has been. What it takes is sustained leadership, which continues to be lacking here in Massachusetts.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.