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. glk20c

    Most "crimes" are merely offenses to the state and did not harm anyone or produce an actual victim. Enjoy your police state, comrades.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  2. Black Dynamite

    Politicians stand up against lobbyists will indicate hope for America?
    We're doomed!

    August 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  3. jojo

    uh oh – the unemployment rate is going to skyrocket if they let people out of prison for nothing

    August 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • barbara

      There are jobs out here the people that are hiring are just being a little hard about hiring and another thing I found about employment is that when a person get laid off a lot of them want a job butvwhen they go look foranothrr job they get paid lest then they get from unemployment so that is why stay on employment so long we still have to pay our bill less pay will not help

      August 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  4. JoeyBagofDoughnuts

    1. Use the death penalty more frequently.
    2. Follow the example of Sheriff Joe.
    3. Make prison 23 hours a day in-cell.
    4. No perks.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • john

      God bless.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        God bless you too .It is folks like you that shows others what America really is.

        August 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • julie acklin

      You are a cruel person.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
      • mystictundra

        Perhaps if people had a reason to fear punishment instead of a 5-year stay in an all-expenses paid boarding house, it might dissuade people from committing crimes. Then again I'm certain that none of those people incarcerated ever did anything cruel to victims to get them landed in there in the first place.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
      • julie acklin

        Not all are in for violent crimes.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Leslie

      That's not is not a plan! It leads to violence in prisons. You can ask for hard time but not solitary. We'll end up with people who will develop mental health issues. We'll trade one expense for another.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        You are so correct .You will pay for suicides. Who wants that on our shoulders. Good post.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Mathew Keirinsky

      1- Yeah more dead sentences, the most expensive prisoners in the prison system by faaaaaar
      2- Sheriff Joe is a deranged moron
      3- Why not dungeons and chains, and feed them only bread and water and they should work like slaves for free in your farm right?
      4 – Perks? You mean human rights, true?

      August 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Reply
    • PeterGrenader

      A. Use Texas as a model
      B. Receive yips of support from other neocons
      C ,Continue to lose major elections

      Yes, it think your suggestion is a grand idea!

      August 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • bob

      araipo is one of the most crooked cops out there. he will either get himself sentenced to prison or killed by one of the victims of his abuse.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • crim

      You are ignorant. What you are espousing is exactly what is exacerbating the problem. If that terrible sheriff in Maricopa was doing things that resulted in lowered recidivism then why is the crime rate there as high as and higher than most other counties in America? I hope you get caught doing something minor and end up in jail with a solitary lock down. No matter what you say you would certainly have a different opinion then. I wish we could figure out a way to handicap intelligence for persons like yourself who are so terribly slow and dim witted. Enjoy your simple life.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • Trish

      You do realize that over 90% of people who are incarcerated are released and re-enter society, don't you? What you're suggesting would not help rehabilitate or get them ready for reintegration. Then all of society suffers.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply
      • JustAnotherVoter

        Last week, Campbell Brown (CNN) also reported that there are 200,000 criminals in prison. 50% of those were convicted on drug-related charges. After serving their sentence, 70% of those released were arrested for another drug-related or other crime within 3 years.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  5. Doug

    I work at a university hospital with an attached state prison hospital. In the 1980s, I worked at another hospital with a state prison contract.
    Our state has the two dubious distinctions within its judicial system.. We have more state sanctioned murders than any other state. Our biggest state crime lab has been vilified for its errors.
    I am not a bleeding heart liberal, more of a sports car socialist. As we frequently comment upon in our departmental meetings, it is sometimes difficult to separate the guards(aka officers ) from the prisoners behaviourly, but for the fact that the prisoners are generally more friendly, and attired differently. And yes, they may be playing me.
    Getting back to this article. Since the crimes of these individuals are posted on line, I can find the offense , and punishment for each of them. Contrary to the treatment by SOME withinthe prison system, they are humans first , patients second and convicted criminals third , in my mind. And woe the resident who brings up the fact that they are "only " prisoners within my hearing range. My long winded point is that many of these people are not career criminals, but I believe are liable to be " guided" in that direction by the prison environment , for having one half of an ounce of cannabis over a magic limit.
    I find it pathetic

    August 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • Sarah

      Thank you for your insightful and very truthful post. Prison has been known for never reforming people who serve time there. Our country has no other options but to lower punishments for several non-violent crimes.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Reply
    • isolate

      Any police officer, criminology textbook or recidivism chart will will tell you that there definitely is a criminal underclass, as there seems to be in every large society. The same small group commits the same class of crimes over and over again. Now and then one of them will commit a different, particularly egregious crime which makes the news, and "lengthy arrest record" is the phrase almost invariably found in the accompanying story. It's hardly a secret.

      As for drugs, the intelligent portion of American society has been advocating legalization and taxation for decades to no avail. It's finally beginning to trickle down to non-Conservative politicians that the $50 billion a year wasted on drug law enforcement and incarceration could be better spent elsewhere. Given the times, half that money could fund a vast public works program to put people back to work and restore our crumbling infrastructure.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
      • JustAnotherVoter

        Secure the borders.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
      • julie acklin

        You are right on the money.We have to have a solution to a long and broken system.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  6. brad1001

    Yes, by all means, let's turn these dopey slackers out into the street where they can panhandle for their dope money. How about work projects for the otherwise unemployable?

    August 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Reply
    • None

      Brad the Brain has a point, let's lock up all dopey slackers... (One count of being dopy, one count of being a slacker, 10 years hard labor for you!) While we're at it, let's lock up all CNN posters who use less than two brain cells of real logic in their post as well.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
    • Cyssi

      I'm very grateful that people with your mindset are being weeded out of power more and more so all the time. As a lily white middle aged Pastor's wife and soccer Mom, I can plainly see that the reign of the older white male is dissipating fast and that is a good thing.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
    • The Smarts

      The last thing this country needs is more panhandlers. Let's continue to incarcerate people with potential and hand them a disproportionately harsh sentence for minor drug infractions. We can then groom them to be disillusioned, resentful of authority, unable to find gainful employment upon release, and more likely to be re-introduced into the prison system after committing more serious crimes.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        Your post is the best one I have read yet.

        August 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • PK

      As soon as drug users are released, crime will increase so users can pay for their habit, which got them in jail in the first place. There should be rehab only prisons to cure these people. How can we pay for them? Consolidate the high risk prisoners and lifers. Once users are out I think we'd all be surprised how much room there is in the hard core prisons. At least start thinking in a different way other than releasing offenders.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  7. corbogey

    We need a goal to get prison population cut in half. Let all the non-violent prisoners out so we have room to keep the violent ones out of society. Plus make it illegal for employers to ask if someone is an ex-con. How do you expect ex cons to stay away from crime when they can't even get a job bagging groceries or working at Home Depot??? If they did their time then they deserve a fresh start. If you check the box that says you have been convicted of a felony, you are not even considered and if they find out after you are hired, Home Depot and most others fire you as a company policy. You could be the best employee but they can;t keep you even if the manager wants you.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Perfect idea.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Reply
    • Chris

      Thank you corbogey for the enlightened response. I am an ex-con and I have checked "no" on that box out of necessity. If an employer finds out later and fires me, I just have to go get another job and check no again.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        Chris thank you for your honesty .In my belief. If you have paid your debt to society and want to work .Than you should be able to.

        August 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Charles

      I have been saying the same thing for years. This unforgiving system is just plain dumb. If they have served their time then dont hold it against them. Holding it against them leads them to a cycle of crime. Wont you rather they work and pay taxes than having to feed and house them in prison

      August 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Reply
    • Thomas

      And then we are all surprised when a Felon who has served his or her time, can't get a job and can't get social support, turns back to a life of crime.

      The goal of a penal system should include re-integrating the convict back in to society.. not exclude them.

      Not all felons are the same and not all felons pose a threat to people.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  8. dudley0416

    4% of the world's population and 25% of the global number of inmates. Nearly 7 million in jail prison probation or parole. 13 million...yes million arrests in US last year. Freest nation in the world?

    August 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  9. wobbles

    The government has basically made a society of sociopathic criminals with their misguided "do whatever you please and never feel the need to follow any rules" social and education policies and crowded prisons are the inevitable result. Now they want to empty the prisons and dump those same sociopaths they created back onto the street to victimize us. If the government abandons it's duties to protect us from these animals, we have every right to do it ourselves. They are telling us there is no reason to have faith in the law and we should respect it as little as the crooks do. There are telling us instead of dialing 911 we should be doing something else. And what is it? Shoot, shovel, and shut up. That's the only answer they are leaving us.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  10. tylovetx

    There's a solution right under our nose, but no one wants to except it. Experiment on Death Row inmates. Instead of letting them waste years in cell, we could be using them for medical research. high benefits for mankind, and solves most of our prison problem.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Reply
    • Larry

      That is a GREAT plan Mengele.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Reply
      • Grimbler

        Short, sweet, to the point, clever & historically relevant. All too rare in these posts. Good job!

        August 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Larry

      Said Hitler

      August 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • Cyssi

      Silly rabbit! How is it that you don't know that every bit of ugly that you put out in the world will come back to you double? Nobody is anonymous to karmic rule, good luck with all that. XOXO

      August 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  11. TewksburyBob

    We outsource just about everything these days. I have always stated that jail is a badge of honor for some of these thugs. It costs $200.00/day to incarcerate these people in this country. Anyone with a prison term of more than 10 years should be sent to some 3rd world country jail for maybe $10.00/day. That would be a deterrent.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • Leslie

      Yes, it would be.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  12. jamie

    This is not a deterant. The problems will continue and is all a part of the master plan. Cut back and law Enforcement and release inmates.....ohhhhhh yeaaaaaa....That'll work.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  13. jamal

    Keep the murderes and rapists and child molesters in jail. Let the drug dealers and junkies out.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  14. bruce

    its all a racket. The Prison System employs counselors, gaurds, administrators, building contractors, management, provisioners. It costs many times as much to incarcerate someone that got caught with a small bag of mari-jane then send that person to college and hire them into some kind of job. Almost ONE PERCENT of Americans are in Jail. What a joke.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  15. Mariann

    The politicians have lost their minds-build more prisons for these low offenders (they are dangerous)–create more jobs–more prison guards etc., make the prisoners have jobs-cleaning the roads, picking up trash–,making license plates, shoveling snow–etc,-, make them earn their keep --guard the prisoners at there every move- creates jobs all around-come up with the funding for these prisons–think outside the box-–, don't put low offenders out there–we are paying for their food stamps, welfare anyway.....

    August 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  16. Grandma of Four

    WHAT is wrong with STIFF and Mandatory Fines along with COMMUNITY SERVICE...a LOT OF IT!!!!

    August 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
    • raw4mrw

      Because if they can't pay the fine because no one will hire them they get thrown back into jail for a parole violation. Debtor prisons are illegal unless you owe money to the government. Nowadays if you can't pay your fine they throw you in jail. Also most of the people in prisons for drug offenses had good jobs until they got popped for their choice of recreational enjoyment. They got thrown in jail and branded a druggie while their boss spent his nights getting plastered on his legal drug at the local bar.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • John D

      What happens when they don't pay those fines or don't do community service?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  17. wolfpackbob

    Where are the statistics in Zakaria's analysis regarding CRIMES? About safety for Americans FIRST. Prison population too high? Just release the prisoners. Problem solved. This is our current government, by executive decree by Prince Eric Holder. Our current justice system allows Eric Holder to investigate himself. He will probably grant himself immunity for the scandals if he can't recuse himself. Our government is a total joke. And we deserve to be RULED by these self-serving elitest politicians.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  18. Crocker

    That all sounds good on it's face. What they don't tell you is that shorter sentences means the criminal is back on the street committing more crimes and victimizing people to support their habit and way of life. But then according to their logic, the costs will be borne by the victims and not the state. Good thinking....

    August 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Reply
    • None

      Concealed carry will assist in that logic as well, it's likely to have been a piece of the plan, give victims a license to kill and clean up the true thugs once and for all.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  19. John H

    After we turn out thousands of low level offenders onto the street, what exactly are all these ex-cons supposed to do? In an anemic economy where even people with spotless records have difficulty landing work, these guys are going to be pretty much unemployable and also ineligible for public assistance in many states. Look for the crime rate to gradually increase as these released cons return to criminal activity just to survive.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Reply
    • None

      They'll sign up for welfare and free public housing.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
      • Thomas

        "also ineligible for public assistance in many states"

        In many states a felon can't get welfare or any other form of public assistance.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  20. jim

    So the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Is it possible it also has the highest crime rate in the world?

    August 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
    • raw4mrw

      When you make everything a crime you end up with a lot more criminals.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • None

      Most certainly, look at our congressmen and senators! We should do a swap, low level drug offenders for above the law high level crooks in the government.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  21. Bill Henderson

    I actually agree with Holder. There's a first time for everything, I guess.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  22. dan

    THe people being incarcerated for extended amounts of time are not drug user being locked up for drug use, these are dealers who are selling drugs to kids and contributing to the decay of America. IF you get caught, you pay the price... good luck with that...

    August 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  23. Allen

    Stick all the people that took bribes in prison, to imprison out people.

    ow many innocent people are there in prison?

    A. We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).

    More broadly, we know that innocent people are often identified as suspects by law enforcement and that DNA testing often clears them before they go to trial, but that DNA testing is impossible in the vast majority of criminal cases. In approximately 25% of cases where DNA testing was done by the FBI during the course of investigations, suspects were excluded by the testing. That doesn’t mean we believe 25% of convictions are in error, but when coupled with the fact that DNA testing is only possible in 5-10% of all criminal cases, it shows that science cannot always clear innocent suspects, which can result in wrongful convictions.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • dudley0416

      There are so many being proven innocent that several states have developed reimbursement charts for specific amounts given by the state to those who have been illegally and unjustifiably buried alive in prison after they are exonerated. surreal.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  24. ShoogaJ

    If Holder is ordering this, it tells me one thing...That the people he wants out of prison are disproportionately black. That has been this regimes moniker from day one, and there is no reason to doubt this would be any different. When Holder addressed the NAACP, he told them outright there are too many blacks in prison. However, he failed to mention what the NAACP and anyone else with half a brain already knows...Blacks commit a ridiculously disproportionate number of crimes, especially violent ones. And will cutting them loose accomplish? Well, since I doubt they are all heading to Harvard Law on an AA scholarship, expect to see your local street corner once again overrun with dope peddlers.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  25. dudley0416

    huge spikes in incarceration occur when the values of the citizenry are not reflected in its laws indicating huge disconnect between voters and elected officials and the APPOINTEES of those who are elected and the power that is given those appointees. Clapper runs the NSA, spies on US citizens, lies to Congress about it and is not charged with a crime. An impprtant indicator.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  26. GenericMan

    So many hateful people sharing their opinions to the world. Talk about yuck!

    August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  27. du

    the U.S. is jail happy, I made a complaint at a Uhaul office, they pushed the door on me and I pushed back,, they called the police and I went to jail for three days then court...perfect example of the stupidly with the law now

    August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  28. jamal

    Uh oh, its gonna be a lot more mean ass black brothers in the projects.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  29. Growapair

    I think we need to stop pampering the rapist and murders. Throw these people in a dudgeon and forget about them. They're the ones who don't want to be apart of society. Why should they deserve a Bed, toilet, shower, food, exercise? Money will be free up as they will no longer be in a prison under those care. Problem is no one in this country has the stones to do the right thing.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
    • alpha2omega

      Because that would be the wrong thing

      August 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  30. doctorstrangeluv

    BUT, BUT, the prison industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the nation that anyone has yet figured out a way to outsource. If you reduce the prison population, you thereby reduce inventory, product and cash flow ...... OHHHHHH WAIT A MINUTE, I GET IT NOW !

    August 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
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