Pubdate: Tue, 15 Feb 2000
Source: San Luis Obispo County Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 The Tribune
Contact:  P.O. Box 112, San Luis Obispo, CA 93406-0112
Fax: 805.781.7905
Author: Jesse Katz, Los Angeles Times


461 Of Every 100,000 Americans Now Serving Time

NEW ORLEANS - A statistical milestone will be reached sometime today in the
United States. The world's most incarcerated country will lock up its 2
millionth prisoner.

That milestone - 1.2 million in state prisons, 645,000 in county jails,
145,000 in federal penitentiaries - is expected to be reached today,
according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington think
tank that supports alternatives to imprisonment. Although calculating a
single day for such an occasion is an imprecise science - and clearly done
for political effect - nobody denies that the 2 million era is upon us, or
that the growth in incarceration over the last decade represents a social
experiment unlike any the United States has seen.

"This is the most punishing decade on record," said Vincent Schiraldi, the
institute's executive director, noting that the nation's inmate population
at the start of the 1990s was 1 million, an unprecedented number at the
time. To double that - adding another million in just 10 years - is to
equal the growth of the prison population during the previous 90 years.

Based on the U.S. Justice Department's most recent data, 461 of every
100,000 Americans are now serving a prison sentence of at least one year.
California, though home to the largest prison population, is about average
per capita, with 483 inmates per 100,000 residents. In Louisiana, the rate
is 736, tops in the nation - a symbol of resolve for some here, a badge of
shame for others.

Having reached such an extraordinary tally so fast, the United States
appears deeply ambivalent about what it has sown. While a plummeting crime
rate stands as vindication for many, a growing number of critics - not just
liberals, but also fiscal conservatives and anti-government independents -
is beginning to question the costs, both economic and social, of keeping so
many people locked up.

Drug offenders account for the greatest percentage of new inmates, yet
hardly anyone believes the drug war is any closer to being won. Sentences
everywhere have become longer and sterner, but each year 500,000
ex-convicts return to society, often less equipped to function than before.
Racial disparities are so extreme - blacks are nearly seven times more
likely to be incarcerated than whites - that many blacks consider the
prison system nothing short of a modern-day slave plantation. As crime
rates continue to drop, even a few law-and-order politicians have begun to
wonder if the $40 billion that taxpayers pony up annually for incarceration
could not be better spent.

Race is often the subtext, an unspoken code that contributes to the
perception of criminals as "The Other," a distinct and deviant caste.
Although blacks compose about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make
up 50 percent of the state and federal prison population. The odds that a
black man will do time at some point in his life are 1 in 3; for whites, it
is 1 in 25.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D