Thursday, February 28, 2008

The land of the free.......

The New York Times has a story on the prison population of the United States. 1% of the country is served time behind bars and many more are relegated to third class status because of previous interactions with the criminal (and occassionally justice) system:
Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
Who is IOZ has a sobering take on this that is worthwhile to think about on a couple of levels.
I want you to consider, the next time you read some New York Times mouthpiece yammering about an "increasingly authoritarian Russia," or about the repressions of this or that state in the "Muslim world," that a person is more likely to be thrown in jail in the United States than in Saudi Arabia.
Past a certain point of near universal crime (rape, murder, robbery etc), crime and punishment are what societies make them to be. Fearful and insecure societies will have lots of both, while confident and strong buy-in/high social capital societies will have a bit less.

The United States as a whole is fearful and insecure and split along some standing fault lines of collar, race, class, and religious belief, fearful of an other. This fear has been exploited in one way or another to cement political power within this country since the Mathers ran Roger Williams out of Massachusetts and down into Rhode Island. This fear is what fuels the war on some drugs used by some people at some times instead of treating drug usage in the same manner as alcahol usage --- available to adults and the proscriptions are against behaviors fueled by that drug use that endangers others such as drunk driving instead of enjoying a couple of cold ones on your front porch on a warm June night. Fear of the other and fear of the cities containing the other fuel this binge of prison building. And it has been politically profitable for the relevant actors despite being an aggregate disaester.

Furthermore, it does not look like anyone has a strong incentive to change the basic structure of the criminal (justice) system on non-harmful crimes. We know America's prisons dual serve at great fiscal and treatment opportunity cost as back-up mental hospitals, we know that prisons are an amazing place for soft criminals to gain a graduate level education to become hardened criminals as there are few/no viable alternatives to employ their skill sets legitimately if they have a felony conviction, and we know that most prison costs are borne by state and local governments which will be facing a quadruple fiscal whammy in the next couple of years. There are viable diversion, and prison reduction programs that produce very low recidivism rates, very high human impacts, and do so at a third of the cost of a year in prison and yet these will not be funded. Instead prisons will continue to be built, guards hired, and state and local budgets stretched ever thinner as a nearly uncuttable cost continues to increase.

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