August 17th, 2013
03:07 AM ET

U.S. wakes up to its prison nightmare

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By Global Public Square staff

We were struck by a piece of news recently that is good for America, shows that our politicians are learning from their mistakes, and are actually cooperating with each other – on both sides of the aisle. Sounds too good to be true?

For many years, the United States has had a growing problem in its criminal justice system. As Global Public Square has pointed out before, the United States is number one in the world when it comes to incarceration – by far. In 2009, for example, for every 100,000 citizens, 760 Americans were in prison. That was five times the rate of incarceration in Britain, eight times the rate in Germany and South Korea, and 12 times the rate in Japan.

This trend began about 40 years ago. In 1970, state prisons had a combined total of 174,000 inmates. By 2009, they had 1.4 million – an eight-fold increase. And these correctional systems cost a lot of money of course – nearly $80 billion a year, more than the GDP of Croatia or Tunisia.

Well it seems that finally, common sense is prevailing. Attorney General Eric Holder made an important speech this week admitting that our prisons are overcrowded and costly. He specifically called for a reduction in mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders.

It's important the attorney general brought up drugs, because the numbers are startling. Federal prisons, the group Holder was referring to, account for about 14 percent of our total inmates. In these prisons, the most serious charge for nearly half of all inmates is a drug offence. Compare that with state prisons, where only 20 percent of the inmates have a drug offence as their most serious charge.

More from CNN: Shame of mandatory minimums

Now, here is what is interesting. The federal prison population has increased every single year since 1980. On the other hand, state prison populations have been declining in recent years, so much so that the overall number of inmates – state plus federal – is actually down in each of the past three years. And here is the best part: the declines encompass 28 states, red AND blue.

Part of these declines are because budgets were simply collapsing. But it could also be because of a growing acknowledgment that the war on drugs has failed. According to the pro-reform Drug Policy Alliance, the United States spends about $50 billion a year on the drug war – adding up to a trillion dollars in the last four decades – but there has been no real change in addiction rates.

Americans are not more prone to drugs or crime than citizens of other countries, so why should we put so many people in prison? Well, the good news is that the numbers are finally too large to ignore. The states are already acting. And Holder's comments will add momentum to a growing chorus for reform.

The greatest challenge in pushing these numbers further down will be the prison lobby. Believe it or not, many of our prisons are run by private companies that then lobby state legislatures massively for bigger prisons, larger budgets, and of course more prisoners. According to the non-profit Justice Policy Institute, the two largest private prison companies in America together generate revenues of $3 billion a year – paid by taxpayers, of course. These private prison companies also happen to be major donors to a number of state campaigns, lobbying for more resources.

If our politicians can take on the prison lobbies, there really is hope for America.

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Topics: Drugs • Law • United States • What in the World?

soundoff (1,005 Responses)
  1. sixpack

    American prisons are not about keeping people safe. Prisons don't deter much crime, they're not about that either. Prisons are merely another money-making industry, that the government uses to suit it's own agenda.

    Any time Eric Holder starts talking like he's seen the light, you can bet it's just the dawn of a new agenda. I predict the prisons will remain just as they are, but with a new type of prisoner. I think he's making room for political dissidents (terrorists), white collar criminals and second amendment activists. I believe prisoners will become more political.

    Just take a look around at what new "crimes" are being created and, how easily the new crimes are prosecuted...mostly bin secret, by secret courts and secret laws. That, my friends, is the new face of incarceration.

    August 20, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  2. Big Picture

    Funny how the problem of overcrowding in our prisons, is looked as some sort of isolated problem. We have 5% of the worlds population and 25% of the worlds prisoners – that tells us something. Are we Americans just more naughty then the rest of the world? I doubt it. It's a symptom of a Centralized federal government completely out of control, which transgresses down to law enforcement and judicial system, and our private for profit bribe giving prison system, just exacerbates the situation. Trapping, persecuting and just plan with the most vulnerable of the civizenry- has become a game and a sport for the people that get a paycheck doing it- it is horrifically immoral and we had better get our arms around this problem – because it is going to lead to somewhere we don't want to be in the country.

    August 21, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  3. Tim

    "The greatest challenge in pushing these numbers further down will be the prison lobby. Believe it or not, many of our prisons are run by private companies "

    I am well aware of this fact, and this should scare anybody who believes in freedom. When you incentivize private businesses to keep people locked up, guess what is going to happen?

    August 21, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  4. Rick McDaniel

    That's simply because the black community sees nothing wrong with they commit a highly disproportionate amount of crime, and, we also have millions of illegal immigrants, many of whom work for drug cartels.

    Until something changes......crime rates will continue to rise........and with black teens killing people because they are "bored", that is not likely to happen any time soon.

    August 21, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • Raj

      Oh, that's a foolish thing to say. Black people see crime as a problem just like everyone else: However, blacks are also disproportionately members of the bottom, economic class which is accompanied with horrible schools, broken families, lowered standards of living, teen pregnancy, clashing morals, and yes, increased crime. Part of the 40 year problem is folks just thinking you can point a finger at one thing, or person, and say "get rid of that and it's fixed." Clearly that's not the case.

      August 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  5. Andy

    Here you can read the full story of American prisons

    August 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  6. sundownr

    Discussing prison reform in America is like discussing the virtues of Lizzy Borden. The profits of incarceration are so large, the industry is so egregious, and the justice system is so broken, we need to tear the damn thing (prison reform) down and start all over again. Only Wall Street rivals the prison industry for corruption.

    August 23, 2013 at 9:54 am | Reply
  7. OnTheRoad

    If our youth keep going the way that they are going, the only safe place to live will be within the four walls of a prison!

    August 24, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  8. Johnathan Cache

    These drug users are in prison, they can't use anymore, they are getting clean, and doing drug rehab. Had they not been arrested, they would have kept using, still been addicted, and out committing more horrible crimes to feed their habit. Anyone do the cost benefit analysis of keeping users in prison and off the streets vs. all the crimes they commit?

    August 26, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  9. franklovesfl

    Crime is at an all time low and prisons are full. Sounds like the cops and the courts are doing their job.


    August 27, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
  10. aurelius

    Bigotry has been the prime obstacle in every attempt to reduce sentence for first time offenders.

    August 27, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  11. Jack Kelle

    I recently finished working on an infographic that explores some devastating facts on the topic. While America makes up 5% of the world's population, 25% of the world's prisoners are Americans in America's prisons! I thought I would share this with you in the hopes you might make some use of it. It's certainly an important issue. Here's the link:

    Best Wishes,
    Jack Kelle

    October 22, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Reply
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