Pubdate: Thu, 02 Apr 2009
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2009 The Economist Newspaper Limited
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Far too many Americans are behind bars

The world's tallest building is now in Dubai rather than New York. Its
largest shopping mall is in Beijing, and its biggest Ferris wheel in
Singapore. Once-mighty General Motors is suspended in a limbo between
bail-out and bankruptcy; and the "war on terror" has demonstrated the
limits of American military might.

But in one area America is going from strength to strength-the
incarceration of its population. America has less than 5% of the
world's people but almost 25% of its prisoners. It imprisons 756
people per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world
average. About one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on
parole. Black men have a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at
some point in their lives. "A Leviathan unmatched in human history",
is how Glenn Loury, professor of social studies at Brown University,
characterises America's prison system.

Conditions in the Leviathan's belly can be brutal. More than 20% of
inmates report that they have been sexually assaulted by guards or
fellow inmates. Federal prisons are operating at more than 130% of
capacity. A sixth of prisoners suffer from mental illness of one sort
or another. There are four times as many mentally ill people in prison
as in mental hospitals.

As well as being brutal, prisons are ineffective. They may keep
offenders off the streets, but they fail to discourage them from
offending. Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested within three
years of being released. The punishment extends to prisoners'
families, too. America's 1.7m "prison orphans" are six times more
likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. The punishment
also sometimes continues after prisoners are released. America is one
of only a handful of countries that bar prisoners from voting, and in
some states that ban is lifelong: 2% of American adults and 14% of
black men are disfranchised because of criminal convictions.

It is possible to pick holes in these figures. Some of the world's
most repressive regimes do not own up to their addiction to
imprisonment (does anyone really believe that Cuba imprisons only five
in every 1,000 of its citizens?). No sane person would rather be
locked up in Russia or China than in America. A country as large and
diverse as America boasts plenty of model prisons and exemplary
training programmes. But all that said, the conclusion remains stark:
America's incarceration habit is a disgrace, wasting resources at home
and damaging the country abroad.

Few mainstream politicians have had the courage to denounce any of
this. People who embrace prison reform usually end up in the political
graveyard. There is no organised lobby for prison reform. The press
ignores the subject. And those who have first-hand experience of the
system's failures-prisoners and ex-prisoners-may have no right to vote.

Which makes Jim Webb all the more remarkable. Mr Webb is far from
being a lion of the Senate, roaring from the comfort of a safe seat.
He is a first-term senator for Virginia who barely squeaked into
Congress. The state he represents also has a long history of being
tough on crime: Virginia abolished parole in 1994 and is second only
to Texas in the number of people it executes.

But Mr Webb is now America's leading advocate of prison reform. He has
co-sponsored a bill to create a blue-ribbon commission to report on
America's prisons. And he has spoken out in every possible venue, from
the Senate to local political meetings. Mr Webb is not content with
incremental reform. He is willing to tackle what he calls "the
elephant in the bedroom"-America's willingness to imprison people for
drug offences.

Does Mr Webb have any chance of diminishing America's addiction to
incarceration? History is hardly on his side. For most of the 20th
century America imprisoned roughly the same proportion of its
population as many other countries-a hundred people for every 100,000
citizens. But while other countries stayed where they were, the
American incarceration rate then took off-to 313 per 100,000 in 1985
and 648 in 1997.

Mr Webb also has some powerful forces ranged against him. The
prison-industrial complex (which includes private prisons as well as
public ones) employs thousands of people and armies of lobbyists.
Twenty-six states plus the federal government have passed "three
strikes and you're out" laws which put repeat offenders in prison for
life without parole. And the war on drugs has pushed the incarceration
business into overdrive. The number of people serving time for drugs
has increased from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today, or 55% of the
population of federal prisons and 21% of those in state prisons. An
astonishing three-quarters of prisoners locked up on drug-related
charges are black.

Up for a fight

But Mr Webb is no ordinary politician. He packed several distinguished
careers into his
life before becoming a senator-as a marine in Vietnam, a lawyer, a
much-published author
and secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration. And he is not a man
to back down
from a fight: one of his best books, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish
Shaped America",
celebrates the martial virtues of the clan to which he is proud to belong.

Some signs suggest that the tide is turning in Mr Webb's direction.
Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Barack
Obama's Justice Department has hinted that it wants to do something
about the disparity in sentencing between blacks and whites for drug
crimes. Support for both the death penalty and the war on drugs is
softening: a dozen states have legalised the use of marijuana for
medical purposes. If Mr Webb can transform these glimmers of
discontent with America's prison-industrial complex into a fully
fledged reform movement, then he will go down in history as a great
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin