Pubdate: Sun, 02 Aug 2015
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2015 The Tribune Co.
Author: Finn Kavanagh

Letter of the Day


There is a destination where you're about five times more likely to 
be incarcerated than the rest of the world. It's got only 4 percent 
of the planet's population but claims more than 20 percent of the 
world's population behind bars. It's not Syria, and it's not Cuba. 
That place is the United States of America.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the number of prisoners 
in the United States has increased more than seven times during this 
author's almost 50 years. Two million people in America live behind 
the walls. America imprisons at an astounding rate of 716 of every 
100,000 people. The Prison Policy Initiative ranks Florida 10th in 
the U.S., imprisoning people at a rate of 891 people per 100,000. 
Florida's "lock 'em up" rate ranks well above authoritarian regimes 
such as Cuba, Rwanda and the Russian Federation. In 1970, the Florida 
Department of Corrections imprisoned just 8,793. Thirty years later, 
the number has multiplied more than 11 times to greater than 100,000 
men and women in state prisons.

The gargantuan growth in U.S. prison beds began under the context of 
a very different time in our country. During the 1980s and 1990s, 
violent crime and property crime grew precipitously, and the infamous 
"War on Drugs" was beginning. Americans didn't feel safe, and 
lawmakers responded with a series of measures that would produce the 
greatest bulge in imprisonment in the history of the world. More 
prison sentences, longer prison sentences, mandatory minimum 
sentencing, more life sentences, "three-strike" laws and 
drug-offender imprisonment all contributed. The fundamental policy 
response to increased crime was to place more offenders in secure 
confinement. Only recently, since the costs of large-scale 
imprisonment are acknowledged as unsustainable, do policy makers 
choose to reconsider.

But locking people up doesn't necessarily reduce crime. Organizations 
such as the Brennan Center for Justice have argued that incarceration 
has had a relatively minuscule effect on crime, that it represents 
only one of many diverse factors that contribute to crime rates. 
Given this burgeoning industry, incarcerating people also became very 
big business. Private, for-profit companies operate seven prisons in 
Florida, five of which are managed by a single company.

The United States and Florida owe it to taxpayers and communities to 
formulate alternatives to mass incarceration. Many years of 
experience, research and folly have demonstrated that the policy is 
ineffective and has produced unintended consequences.

Finn kavanagh

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