Media Awareness Project

The "Moral Costs" Of 2 Million Prisoners


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DrugSense FOCUS Alert # 264 April 15, 2003

The U.S. prison population officially rose above 2 million recently, and this has disturbed editorialists at the Washington Post - at least a little bit.

"There is no magic 'right' number of people to have in prison; that will properly vary with crime rates and popular attitudes toward criminals," the editorial proclaimed, "But there is something breathtaking about the current figure."

Later in the piece, writers acknowledge that drug prohibition has played an important role in the growth of prison populations. The editorial doesn't call for ending the drug war, but it does lament the financial costs of incarcerating so many drug criminals. It also suggests there are moral costs, described as "hard to define but real nonetheless." Hard to define? How about the corruption and dishonesty needed to maintain prohibition? How about the cruelty that takes medicine from people in pain?

Please write a letter to the Washington Post congratulating the paper on its minor moral awakening, but also to remind editors that if they dare to look at the drug war picture unflinchingly and without glossing over the realities, the moral costs are so clear they hurt.

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Source: Washington Post
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Pubdate: 13 Apr 2003
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
Contact:
Website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/491

Editorial: A Nation Behind Bars

IMAGINE THAT the United States locked up the populations of Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota and then threw in the nation of Iceland for good measure. The result would be an inmate population of approximately the same size as the one currently behind bars in the United States. Last year, for the first time in American history, the states and the federal government -- in jails and in prisons around the country -- had more than 2 million people behind bars, according to Justice Department statistics. Those locked up included 1.3 percent of all males in this country, 4.8 percent of all black males -- and a shocking 11.8 percent of black men between the ages of 20 and 34. The dramatic rise in the prison population has created a nation of prisoners within American society. While hidden from the view, and even the consciousness, of most Americans, the existence of this nation forces those on the outside to ask, in turn, what kind of nation they want to live in.

There is no magic "right" number of people to have in prison; that will properly vary with crime rates and popular attitudes toward criminals. But there is something breathtaking about the current figure. The U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world; according to data from the British Home Office, the only countries with rates close to it are the Cayman Islands and Russia. It is nearly seven times the rate in Canada and more than four time the rate in the United Kingdom, which leads Europe. It also represents an enormous rise by the standards of even recent American history. According to criminologist Alfred Blumstein, the rate of imprisonment stayed stable between the 1920s and the 1970s. Since the 1970s, however, it has increased several times over.

The logic of tougher sentencing regimes and extended prison terms for drug offenders has long since become circular. When crime persists in the face of tougher sentences, many policymakers conclude that the sentences need to be tougher still. The cycle has proven enormously difficult to break, in large measure because popular sentiment makes the tough-on-crime posture politically irresistible. But keeping an ever-growing number of people locked up has huge costs: the financial costs associated with maintaining a nation of inmates, the human costs in the wrecked lives of those who could have been rehabilitated under different policies, the costs to society when people are finally released after years of prison socialization. There are also moral costs -- hard to define yet real nonetheless. For the incarceration rate reflects on some level the rate at which a society gives up on its members. And 2 million is a huge number to give up on.




SAMPLE LETTER

(Please note: If you choose to use this letter as a model please modify it at least somewhat so that the paper does not receive numerous copies of the same letter and so that the original author receives credit for his/her work.)

To the Editors:

I read the editorial "A Nation Behind Bars" (April 13), about the 2 million people imprisoned in America, many for drug crimes. As I read, I was surprised to see this line: "There are also moral costs -- hard to define yet real nonetheless."

Hard to define? Separating parents from their children purely because parents like intoxicants other than alcohol or tobacco is a moral cost. Empowering violent drug gangs who torment neighborhoods and use young people as cannon fodder for their enrichment is a moral cost. And filling our expensive prison system with those who survive gang warfare, thereby starting the whole cycle again, is a clear moral cost.

The moral costs of the drug war are very literally concrete for those who have been swept into cells because of it.

Stephen Young

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Prepared by: Stephen Young -www.maximizingharm.com DrugSense Focus Alert Specialist

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