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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Crime and Punishment in America - Lock Them Up And Forget They Exist.

This story is not about how I feel badly for criminals or how I feel that people are unjustly treated or incarcerated.  Instead, this is about the bigger issue of a system which is broken or at a minimum which seems to cost us way too much money.  Make no mistake about it, the criminal justice system and our penal system are very very expensive.

Prison is expensive—$50,000 per inmate per year in California.  It makes you wonder if the cost of imprisoning criminals may in many instances  far exceeds the benefits, in terms of crimes averted.

But it is not just about cost.  It is about the waste in terms of human resources which we impose upon our selves for the "justice" system. 

According to the Economist one American adult in 100 festers behind bars (with the rate rising to one in nine for young black men). Its imprisoned population, at 2.3m, exceeds that of 15 of its states. No other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free. The rate of incarceration is a fifth of America’s level in Britain, a ninth in Germany and a twelfth in Japan.

Those numbers are astounding to me.  Are we just more criminal in America?  I don't believe that (in fact, the English are slightly more criminal than Americans, though less murderous).  The economist then points out that:

Lawmakers who wish to sound tough must propose laws tougher than the ones that the last chap who wanted to sound tough proposed. When the crime rate falls, tough sentences are hailed as the cause, even when demography or other factors may matter more; when the rate rises tough sentences are demanded to solve the problem. As a result, America’s incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970.

It seems odd that a country that rejoices in limiting the power of the state should give so many draconian powers to its government, yet for the past 40 years American lawmakers have generally regarded selling to voters the idea of locking up fewer people as political suicide.

It does not have to be this way. In the Netherlands, where the use of non-custodial sentences has grown, the prison population and the crime rate have both been falling. Britain’s new government is proposing to replace jail for lesser offenders with community work. Some parts of America are bucking the national trend. New York cut its incarceration rate by 15% between 1997 and 2007, while reducing violent crime by 40%.

An era of budgetary constraint, however, is as good a time as any to try. Sooner or later American voters will realise that their incarceration policies are unjust and inefficient; politicians who point that out to them now may, in the end, get some credit.

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