Prison Boom USA: Equal Justice Or Pork-Barrel Politics? FWD

Tom Boland (
Sat, 27 Mar 1999 14:54:27 -0800 (PST)


By Geneva Overholser

Tuesday, March 23, 1999; Washington Post, Op-Ed, Page A17

Interesting how not only people have their 15 minutes of fame. Issues do,
too. A powerful beam of concentrated light has fallen, suddenly, on the
astonishing share of our population we've been putting behind bars.

In the past dozen years, the number of Americans in jails and prisons has
doubled, says a Justice Department survey released this month. At the end of
1985, there were 744,208 people locked up; by mid-1998, 1.8 million.

The prison boom-and the degree to which it is fed by drug-related
arrests-had been generating headlines even before the study. Take a Feb. 28
New York Times story: "War on Crack Retreats, Still Taking Prisoners." It
began: "Every 20 seconds, someone in America is arrested for a drug
violation. Every week, on average, a new jail or prison is built to lock up
more people in the world's largest penal system."

A March 7 New York Times Week in Review analysis, "Less Crime, More
Criminals," noted that "the ranks of prisoners grow enough each year to fill
Yankee Stadium and then some." Last year the Atlantic Monthly, in "The
Prison Industrial Complex," looked at the number of jobs for depressed
regions and "windfalls for profiteers" brought by the boom.

But surely the story that showed most dramatically how far we've come with
this addiction to imprisonment was a Feb. 22 Washington Post piece, "Voting
Rights for Felons Win Support; 13 percent of Black Men Ineligible With Ban."
The story described proposals in various states to allow felons, and in some
cases current prisoners, to vote.  Hand-wringing is one thing; when worry
over the huge numbers of nonvoters in and out of prison spurs legislation,
you know something big has happened.

And something big has. The U.S. rate of imprisonment, once comparable to
that of other democracies, is now six to 10 times higher than those of
countries of the European Union, according to Council of Europe figures.
It's hard now even to remember back to the '60s, when America's prison
population was shrinking. Leaders of both parties then talked of emptying
the nation's jails of all but the most dangerous criminals and moving to
more humane alternatives. Instead we now have mandatory minimum sentences,
"three-strikes" laws and other anti-crime measures, increasing both the
number of people sent to prison out of all those arrested and the length of
time served.

These measures set us so resolutely on our new path that now, well after
crime rates began their descent, imprisonment rates continue to soar. And
the boom eats greater and greater shares of federal, state and local
budgets. In 1994 the California Department of Correction budget rose higher
than that for the University of California.

More and more research is showing that this spending for prisons at the
expense of other government responsibilities is seriously misguided.  Words
once voiced only by such liberals as Jesse Jackson are now being presented
simply as sound policy: It's more efficient to spend on programs that may
prevent crime-afternoon activities for unsupervised youth, family therapy
for troubled kids, support for "at-risk" young mothers-than on imprisoning
people. Some of the best of this work has come out of Rand, the very think
tank that made longer prison terms popular, as the National Journal noted in
a fine piece last summer called "All Locked Up."

That piece ends with a powerful sentiment from former Democratic
representative Dan Rostenkowski, who learned a lot about what his votes had
produced-once he himself had been locked up on corruption charges. He was
amazed, he said, by the great number of sentences of 15 or 20 years for
minor drug offenses. "The waste of these lives is a loss to the entire
community. That's not a problem many people spend much time thinking about.
. . . Certainly, I didn't give these issues a lot of thought when I was a
member of the civilian population."

Rostenkowski added that he felt guilty over having voted for these
"misguided" policies. "I was swept along by the rhetoric about getting tough
on crime. Frankly, I lacked both expertise and perspective on these issues.
So I deferred to my colleagues who had stronger opinions but little more

That combination of strong opinions and little expertise has given us a huge
and continuing boom in prison building, but little else in the way of sound
public policy to deal with the problems filling the cells.  Perhaps this
15-minute spotlight will nudge us toward the better path that social science
research is bringing to light.

(c) Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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