Pubdate: Tue, 23 May 2006
Source: Fayetteville Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2006 Fayetteville Observer


Each week more than 1,000 Americans hear those iron doors bang shut. 
Two million U.S. residents were behind bars this time last year. In 
North Carolina, the incarceration rate was 620 per 100,000 Tar Heels.

The numbers, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 
invite misunderstanding because they include people in jails, and 
most of those are awaiting trial, not serving sentences. In fact, 
that's the fastest-growing group, although the prison population, 
roughly twice as large, is climbing at a brisk 1.6 percent clip.

The point, however, is hard to miss. There is one thing that America 
does better than anyone else: lock 'em up and throw away the key. We 
do it better than anyone else in the First World, or the Second. We 
do it better than Third World dictators, police states, theocracies 
and garrison states.

One U.S. resident in 136 is in custody. The national rate is 738 per 
100,000 people.

Here in North Carolina, we "solved" a prison overcrowding problem by 
reducing the size of the cells, and congratulated ourselves on having 
"added" cell space. Then we "solved" it again by embarking on a 
prison construction program that was calculated, at the time it 
began, to become obsolete before it could be completed. We made more 
things illegal, stiffened sentences and took away judges' discretion 
to decide what sentence was appropriate to each case.

North Carolina wasn't in this alone. In fact, its incarceration rate 
didn't crack the top five. Top honors go to Louisiana and Georgia, 
where, on average, more than one person in 100 is behind bars.

We have been at this for decades. Americans are now the most 
imprisoned people on the planet. The pace is picking up. And we seem 
to have no other main-line defense in prospect.

That burdens supporters of the lock-'em-up ideology with the duty of 
answering a few questions. Is this what we're supposed to regard as 
success? Have we taken back the streets? Won the "war" on drugs? Made 
our homes safe from invasion and our families safe from deranged 
people and drug-crazed brutes?

Maybe this is the best we can do, and we should tone down the 
extravagant predictions and trudge onward. But even if there's no 
alternative, nothing that would do away with the need for prisons, 
there are other approaches to lawmaking and sentencing. Wouldn't it 
make sense, for the sake of public safety and government economy, to 
explore those with the same kind of vigor we display in cheering the 
latest conviction and mandatory prison sentence? Someone should at 
least come forward and explain what's wrong with "both/and."
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