Pubdate: Mon, 27 Dec 1999
Source: Capital Times, The  (WI)
Copyright: 1999 The Capital Times
Author: Dave Zweifel
Related: and


As Americans, we're going to set a dubious mark in about six weeks. For the
first time, more than 2 million of our citizens will be in prison.

What that means is that the United States will have more people incarcerated
than any other country in the world, large or small, democracy or
dictatorship. And, yes, that includes Russia.

In just 10 years our prison population has risen by 70 percent. With 2
million prisoners, we now have one-fourth of the world's incarcerated

As has been reported several times on these pages, most states, including
Wisconsin, now spend more on prisons than they do on higher education. The
cost of operating prisons nationwide next year is expected to hit $40

Anthony Lewis of the New York Times says that two-thirds of those 2 million
inmates are there for nonviolent offenses.

"Chances are good that by the time they are released -- after sentences that
are among the longest anywhere -- they will be thoroughly brutalized,'' he
wrote recently.

Many of them, of course, are in prison for drug offenses. Our pandering
politicians have seen fit to enact no-nonsense, get-tough-on-drugs laws that
require judges to send people to prison for extraordinary lengths of time.

If you are caught with more than 100 marijuana plants on your farm or in
your garden, for example, it's five years in the penitentiary, no questions

The laws leave absolutely no leeway for treatment.

We don't throw people in the pen for blatant alcohol abuse. Instead, we try
to get them in treatment centers or Alcoholics Anonymous groups. Marijuana
users, however, are thrown in the slammer and the rest of society pays for
their incarceration, not to mention the problems that many of them have
after those prison experiences. If they weren't hardened lawbreakers before
they went in, they are when they get out.

According to Lewis, the incarceration figures are so stunning that even some
experts who long have advocated a hard line on crime think it is time for a
reappraisal of criminal justice policies.

"The value of imprisonment is a portrait in the law of rapidly diminishing
returns,'' Professor John J. DiIulio Jr. of Princeton said. Known as a
hard-liner, DiIulio now thinks 2 million is quite enough.

We have much the same problem here in the Dane County Jail. Sheriff Gary
Hamblin is the first to admit that there are many in the county's
overstuffed jail who should be receiving treatment for mental illnesses and
addiction problems instead.

The problem will never be addressed, however, if our political leaders keep
trying to capitalize on fear instead of pushing long-range solutions that
can get us out of this expensive mess.

Dave Zweifel is the editor of The Capital Times.
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