Pubdate: Sun, 02 Aug 2015
Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN)
Copyright: 2015 Star Tribune


Either Americans are the most evil people on Earth or there's 
something terribly wrong with their criminal-justice system. We hope 
it's the latter. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, 
the United States has nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners. The 
U.S. locks people up at a rate nearly five times the world's average. 
Since 1980, its inmate population has more that quadrupled.

How to explain? First, there's the sad reality that U.S. crime rates, 
despite their general decline in recent years, are still far higher 
than those of other advanced democracies - stoked, perhaps, by the 
nation's sharp social disparities and the easy access to firearms. 
Then there's the sad reality that jails and prisons, rather than 
hospitals, are being used to warehouse the mentally ill. An estimated 
16 percent of the nation's inmate population suffers a mental disorder.

But among the causes, what's drawing the most attention now are the 
harsh sentences handed down over the last three decades as part of 
the "war on drugs." Competing to be toughest on crime, political 
leaders passed "three strikes" laws, imposed longer prison terms and 
prescribed mandatory minimum sentences even for nonviolent drug 
offenders. In some states, a first offense for marijuana possession 
brings 10 years in the slammer. Prisons are stacked with these 
nonviolent offenders, most of whom had the misfortune of growing up 
in poor, minority communities where the drug trade was part of 
ordinary life. While blacks and Latinos account for 30 percent of the 
U.S. population, they make up 60 percent of prisoners.

President Obama's visit to an overcrowded federal prison near 
Oklahoma City last month drew attention to badly needed reforms. 
After peering into a spare 9-by-10-foot cell, which at times had 
housed three men, Obama told a group of prisoners that he could have 
easily been in their place if not for the advantages he enjoyed 
growing up. (Obama has admitted using marijuana and cocaine in his 
youth.) "There but for the grace of God," he told reporters 
afterward, pledging to renew his reform efforts. "Mass incarceration 
makes our country worse off," he said. "And we need to do something about it."

Both parties are in rare agreement on that. Democrats emphasize the 
wasted lives and the damage to minority communities. Republicans 
stress the billions of dollars spent on locking up people who aren't 
dangers to their fellow citizens.

It's a stretch to suggest, however, that the bloated prison 
population is due mainly to the sentencing of nonviolent drug 
offenders. It's not. Most of the increase comes from locking up 
greater numbers of thieves and violent criminals and keeping them 
behind bars longer. Even if all nonviolent drug offenders were set 
free today, the prison population of 2.2 million would drop to only 
around 1.7 million, still nearly 20 percent of the world's total.

Still, on the margin, granting early release to nonviolent offenders 
and shortening sentences to better match crimes seems a sensible step 
for the federal system, and eventually for the states. Career 
criminals need to be locked up. But hundreds of thousands of 
nonviolent offenders have aged out of their youthful mistakes. Many 
deserve a second chance to remake their lives.

So, which is it? Are Americans the most evil people on Earth, or is 
their criminal-justice system seriously flawed? The answer isn't so 
clear. To make real headway on the prison anomaly, thousands of 
murderers, robbers and other predators would have to be released 
early or receive shorter sentences. It's doubtful that politicians or 
the public would be ready for that.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom