Pubdate: Sun, 10 Jan 1999
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 1999 Houston Chronicle
Author: Neal R. Peirce, Washington Post Writers Group


WASHINGTON -- The violent crime rate in America continues to plummet. It's
off 21 percent since 1993, 7 percent in 1997 alone. Murders in the country's
10 largest cities declined 12 percent in 1998. Our streets are certifiably
the safest they've been in a quarter century.

But there's grim news, too, summarized by writer Eric Schlosser in a
disturbing report -- "The Prison-Industrial Complex" -- in The Atlantic

Some 1.8 million Americans are behind bars, in federal and state prisons and
local jails. We are imprisoning more people than any other nation on earth,
even Communist China. We've achieved the highest incarceration rate in human
history for non-political offenses.

Among our prisoners are dangerous folks we all want to see locked up --
roughly 150,000 armed robbers, 125,000 murderers, 100,000 sex offenders. But
of the people now going to prison, Schlosser reports, less than a third have
committed a violent crime. Drug-related cases predominate:

"Crimes than in other countries would usually lead to community service,
fines or drug treatment -- or not be considered crimes at all -- in the
United States now lead to a prison term, by far the most expensive form of

The U.S. actually had a rather steady 20th century rate of imprisonment --
about 110 inmates for every 100,000 people -- until the 1970s. Then New
York's Gov. Nelson Rockefeller suddenly suggested every illegal-drug dealer
be punished with a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.

Across the country, politicians of both parties emulated Rockefeller,
pushing multiple types of mandatory sentencing laws. As battalions of drug
offenders got caught, our governments constructed some 1,000 new prisons in
20 years. Virtually all are now filled to the gills, many dangerously
overcrowded. California alone now has more inmates than France, Great
Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined. Our
national incarceration rate is 445 per 100,000.

And things may still get worse. Sentencing laws and parole policies in
Georgia, for example, are so stiff that the governor's budget office
recently predicted Georgia prisons would double in size in a decade. Likely
cost: over $4 billion.

We've created a self-perpetuating prison boom, what Schlosser labels a
"prison-industrial complex" as potent as the "military-industrial complex"
President Eisenhower warned of.

The active partners in this new complex are politicians using fear of crime
to garner votes, low-income rural areas clawing for new prisons as a
cornerstone of economic development, private companies angling to share in
the lucrative $35-billion-a-year prison industry, and government officials
expanding their bureaucratic empires.

So now we must ask: Has the prison boom swept up so many criminals it's
responsible for dropping crime rates?

The answer-- in part, of course. Incarcerated offenders are safely (albeit
temporarily) off the streets.

Much more is reducing crime, though. Added police, linked with an historic
rise in community policing and computer-based crime-tracking and dispatch.
The Brady bill and other measures reducing the flow of guns onto the
streets. A decrease in the cocaine trade. Good economic times providing
alternatives to crime.

So could we reduce crime without our obscene prison-building binge?
Certainly. Prisons have become a revolving door for poor, highly
dysfunctional, often illiterate drug abusers. Our governments are generally
too chintzy to offer them drug treatment, behind bars or on the street.

Diverting some of the billions now going to the prison-industrial complex
for drug treatment and other prevention efforts could start us on a much
saner course.

Another gnawing issue is race. Black men are five times as likely to be
arrested for drug offenses as whites (even though whites and blacks have
similar abuse levels). The incarceration rate for black males was 3,096 per
100,000 in 1996, eight times the rate for white men (370 per 100,000) and
more than double the rate for Hispanic men.

Roughly half our inmates are African-American. One of every 14 black men is
now in prison; one of four is imprisoned at some point. The new prisons they
get sent to are overwhelmingly in white, rural areas, and their guards rural
whites. Nationwide, 1.3 million black men -- 13 percent of black
African-Americans -- can't even vote because of their criminal records.

So any idea of celebrating our declining crime rates because of high
incarceration rates is reprehensible on three counts: the bestial nature of
prison life, a race-based denial of equal rights and civil rights
reminiscent of the old South Africa, and a bloated, overwhelmingly white
prison-industrial complex making money off the whole.

The prison craze besmirches the name of America. In the best of economic
times, in a nation dominant on the world stage, it's more intolerable than
ever. In community-based policing and neighborhood-oriented prevention
programs, we've begun to build a better way. Now we need a vigorous
political debate: how to build safer communities without incarcerating so
many millions of our fellow citizens.

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