A new study from the Pew Center on the States has found that in 35 states inmates serving time for drug offenses and violent crimes are serving on average nine months longer than they would have in 1990, a 36 percent increase. The worst state is Florida, where prisoners are serving 194 percent more time for drug offenses. The study also found (unsurprisingly) that the increase in jail time for drug offenders did not lead to safer streets and a reduction in violent crime. In fact, states that did reduce prison time for drug offences saw an overall drop in crime.
The U.S. is addicted to incarceration. Almost 1 percent of the population is behind bars, and the crime rates do not reflect this fetish for locking people up yielding any encouraging results. The U.S. has about 730 prisoners per 100,000 of the population, while England has 156 and Canada has 117. Even totalitarian countries like China and Burma have no more than 122 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. Approximately one in 20 people are Americans, yet one in four prisoners are American. The U.S. has close to a million more prisoners than China, a country with a population of over a billion.
The huge American prison population is a relatively recent phenomenon. The explosion in the prison population can be attributed to mandatory sentencing and “three strikes” laws that were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Americans did not suddenly become more violent and dangerous in these decades; we just introduced really dumb sentencing policies.
In our current economic situation prison and sentencing reforms have been noticeable by their absence. The rise in prison time costs an estimated $10 billion a year. Many prisoners have committed victimless crimes for which some are serving expensive decades-long sentences.
While prison and sentencing reforms are lacking some progress is being made in drug policy. Governor Cuomo wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and Rhode Island lawmakers have just passed a marijuana decriminalization bill. While these are steps in the right direction they need to be copied more widely and the federal government needs to back off, neither of which are likely.
There is a website that features aerial photographs of American prisons. It gives you a sobering idea of the scale of this vast, expensive, and inefficient project that is mass incarceration. Longer sentences for drug offenders do not lower crime rates or the rates of consumption, its time to abandon them.