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. John D

    Minor pot charges should be ticketed like speeding. Even is 50% don't pay the fines you are getting the revenue from the other 50% and only are sending half to jail.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  2. dragon

    Pot profits will be used for others drugs, human trafficing, shootings for territory, and control..keep them in jail.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  3. PINO

    Holder is counting on the Liberal media like CNN to help create the illusion that this is a "good idea". One might ask what did these people do to get to be in prison? Why is that Holder does not care that the crime rate is down lower than it has ever been in recent memory.

    Is this just an example of when you have no other good news to talk about you bring up the issue of race and count on the liberal media to put it on the front page of every thing they produce? Probably.. Holder needs to GO>>>>

    August 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  4. Republi-tarian

    Enforce the laws passed. No DOJ or any other govt agency has the right to not enforce all laws passed by Congress. That said, repeal the laws you will not enforce. All of them.
    Repeal ALL victimless crimes – like marijuana.
    This is a Republic and a nation of laws. Not a personality cult, dynasty or monarchy. It isn't a 'democracy' either, so stop praying to that nefarious god. Democracies never work and we're seeing why.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Brian

      Democracies never work? We live in a Republic, not a Democracy.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
      • frank

        Your a Buffoon. A Republic is a modern type of Totalitarianism. Its Democracy we are trying to spread correct. The Republic doesnt stand a chance without Democracy and bias versa.... Im from Texas and thats the main reason The Republic of Texas failed. A republic is not enough to maintain national or state sovereignty.. Face it no one wants to be part of a Republic

        August 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Sid

      "No DOJ or any other govt agency has the right to not enforce all laws passed by Congress"

      you must be new here...

      (BTW – Lloyd Blankfein, Jon Corzine & most of wall st just fell out of their chairs laughing at this...)

      August 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • stevejohs

      This is a must see. Google the term "FAST MARKET CASH" and go to the top site. Click on the penny stock pages to see what the rich are trying to hide from us.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
    • Butch

      Should also blame the church. Instead of church cruises, million Dollar buildings, clergy should teach right and wrong to the young based on the bible and not some BS conservative agenda. And don't rely on the government to do your bidding for you. Uncle Sam isn't uncle God.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  5. Fred

    I'm sure the DOJ has thought about all the untended consequences of this policy. Like releasing repeat offenders to continue to victimize their local communities. I'm sure these people just sit in their living rooms and smoke dope and don't rob, steal, threaten and otherwise abide by the laws. This policy is not good for the community/ies.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • stevejohs

      This is crazy stuff my friends. The drug war is creating this mess.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      We have 1.5 million people in prison, and of those 85,000 are in eternal solitary confinement at a cost of over 6 billion a year. Its been proven over and over that solitary causes long term mental issues and was abolished 100 years ago, then we brought it back. Two black panthers in Louisiana have spent over 40 years in solitary, they are in their 60's and 70's and they will die there. If that is not cruel and unusual punishment I don't know what is. Overall we spend more on locking prisoners up (65 billion) than we do on education (50 billion) and it is getting worse every year.
      Lock someone up like an animal and then let them out, its a wonder they don't kill more people than they do. I agree that violent criminals should be locked up forever, but those that are in for victimless crimes need to be taught skills and let out at the end of a reasonable sentence.

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

    Great! Now let's not even bother with prisons anymore, and let the crazy nutbags go free because the poor misunderstood criminals are so misjudged and treated so harshly. In spite of the fact that they get 100% medical care, 3 square meals a day, internet access, cable tv, gym's, and other benefits that regular straight laced people never see. The only thing criminals can't do is leave. But ohhh, they're poor misunderstood criminals that should be freed earlier, right?

    There is something seriously wrong with this country when the criminals and rich get treated better than everyone else.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Jonny

      They're better off than a lot of the kids nowadays. We really need to stop babying the criminals and pay more attention to the upcoming generations and the elderly, of course.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
    • Lyn

      What prison are you talking about? You don't speak and know all for all the prisons in this country lady... first of all State prisoners here in Alabama get fed food oiut of boxes marked "not fit for human consumption" and after many inmates eat that poison they immediately throw it right back up... THEN you want to talk about medical care??!! I had a friend die in Tutwiler because of deliberate indifference!! She was given the wrong medication locked in a holding cell in the hcu went blind and died in pain and begging for family so just shut your mouth about how good inmates have it mam! NO air-conditioner in Tutwiler for inmates either... rest assured you mean person those women suffer during summer and winter!!

      August 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
      • Melissa

        Honey, if its so bad, then stop breaking the law.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • Two

        I am going out on a limb and call BS on your story. I am going to call BS the food part and on the medication part, just over all BS on you. There are standards and a little thing the sates no cruel and unusual punishment to enforce those standards. Oh and by the way air conditioning is a luxury item and should not be mandatory in prisons. If people do not like the basic standards then stop committing crimes.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
      • charlene

        ok let these nut bags loose and eat all of you alive...those who favor to let them loose,open your door at night and be ready to be chapped,and also.just in case ready a condom for you..you dont want in jail then dont do bad things,that simple..

        August 18, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • frank

      Well Missy then the answer would be to keep on spending billions on these nutbags

      August 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • Walt

      You're obviously out of touch with reality.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      So the land of the free has the highest incarceration rate in the world and that doesn't strike you as somehow off? That maybe the system is broken and we're turning people into criminals through prohibition?

      We have the highest known incarceration rate since the Soviet Gulag. It destroys families and leads to cyclical poverty and crime. But nah, the problem must be that Americans are just more prone to crime than everyone else, and even more so than Americans in the 70's, despite historically low rates of violent crime.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • Masse

      "Great! Now let's not even bother with prisons anymore"
      So... even you know you can't argue with what was actually presented so you argue against "let's not have prisons at all."
      We're in agreement- we still need prisons and you have no valid point against what was presented here.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
    • Rooster

      Thats why the good lord gave us guns... Crazy shows up at your place, then Crazy is put down. No cost to the tax payer other than the clean up.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • Denise

      You're spouting generalizations... if you dig down just a tiny bit... you'll find the 3 square meals are not what you think. In some prisons, the prisoners are fed moldy, outdated food. No hot meals. All sandwiches. It's pure junk. Don't worry, you're not missing out on anything good by this stuff going to them. A gym? Do you think they have access to Bally's? They don't have treadmills, spin bikes or steppers. No one is giving them aerobic classes or zumba...they have probably a weight bench or two and a couple of hand weights. As for 100% medical care- what they have is minimal and most likely, they have to pay a copay...out of the 8 cents they make an hour to "work". They also don't get much dental care either. Perhaps you need to go into a prison first and then comment later.on what is really there because you are just spouting what you've read. Prisoners are not living in the lap of luxury on your dime.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  7. brian

    Legalize marijuana and that would free up quite a bit of room, stop throwing people in prison over a plant

    August 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • Mr Dalloway

      Very very smart post

      August 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      It is medicine and life saving for many.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • Tom

      More states like Washington and Colorado need to legalize in order to force the feds to change. It's kind of like a peaceful revolution when the states simply tell the feds they won't spend money enforcing or assisting the enforcement of federal laws. The feds can fight two states, but they can't fight twenty!

      August 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  8. Freedom Fascist

    It's got nothing to do with an attack of conscience. Can anybody here see what's going on? We're broke....did you hear me...we're broke. There's no money left. Since our politicians are too cowardly and selfish to come out and tell us the truth to our faces this is going to the game for the next two years (until the collapse enters stage two and rapidly diminishes out of control) Obama and his cabinet are going to have to seriously look at where they can afford to cut spending. Since we're succeeded in turning the world against us; we have a huge military collapse ahead – so we better not stop spending on that so we can pretend we have a chance in the up and coming WW we directly started. Take police off the streets? Well, as we all get poorer and poorer, be better to have armed thugs out there protecting the politicians. Cut healthcare? Then the seniors will be mad – and, quite frankly, I agree with Obama, no one wants to open their local newspaper and face opinion after opinion form these useless overaged children. Cut our salaries, no. Cut the transportation infrastructure? If we gauge anymore from that we will look like Quebec. All in all – please don't take this to be the "benevolent politicians" having a change of heart. The prisoners will be let go – maybe to make way for political prisoners? FEMA Camps? As jess said below – what will the consequence be of suddenly letting these small time thugs go? Good? Bad? We've kept them oppressed over practically nothing for years and now we're going to pat them on the back, give them a happy face sticker and maybe a whispered apology on the way out? Could potentially be hilarious!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • Mr Dalloway

      You are telling the honest truth well said

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

      This is so very true. Fema camps are already being built. It is so very true what you are speaking. They are for you and me.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • Coffeeclue

      We're not broke. We're doing perfectly fine. Stop spreading this BS and look at the real budgets, not only what Rush Limbaugh tells you.
      I really don't see why American prison system is run by private companies. Why are we not only paying to house the inmates, but also have the private companies make profits on these inmates? The government should take over the prison system and regulate it as it should be regulated, without interference of private parties that want to make money on tax payers.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
      • Carlos

        Wake up! Everything is supplied by private companies that make a profit. This is capitalism. Your water, food, electricity, everything. How are prisons any different? If you are their product in liberty, why not in prison too?

        August 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • techs

      That certainly explains why CNN and Eric Holder are suddenly acting like they just learned something that colleges and potheads have been showing proof of for decades. I don't see how it is going to improve our economic situation though. People released from prisons and jails will be unemployed and many people will be displaced because of the large number of industries that will be negatively effected by loosening or repealing drug laws (prisons, police/DEA, courts, law firms, paper, cotton, alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and you get the picture because the list goes on and on).

      August 18, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  9. Deon Charles

    Surely with the huge amount of taxes collected the government can afford prisons and incarceration for people who break the law. And of course the article is void of details on drug offenses. I find it hard to believe that we're incarcerating people caught smoking a joint or with a small bag of marijuana sufficient only for personal use. Where are the statistics around what % of incarcerations cover crimes truly that minimal?

    August 18, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • Lyn

      Its not so hard to believe if you have a friend a loved one in prison for a joint or small bag... here in Alabama my friend is serving a MANDATORY 3 years for weed! Yes I know all the repubs will be posting 'don't do the crime if ya cant do the time mantra but that personal viewpoint has proven to be what?? a FAILURE all the way around including you mr/ms taxpayers!

      August 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  10. Dave Rogers

    Wow... first they let two states legalize pot... then they admit there's a problem with having 8 times more prisoners than we ought to have.

    Next thing you know, they're going to make rules that police forces have to follow... and we'll have to change the name of the country..because it won't be recognizable as the USA.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  11. Ray

    I guess dropping them off in Alaska with no shoes is not one of the ideas being thought about.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  12. Ryry

    This article does not bring up the problem of how illegal immigration has impacted our prison population.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  13. Daremonai

    Things are unlikely to improve. The US used to have a model prison system focused on rehabilitation, and many countries with good systems today modeled them off what the US was doing. But just like everything else the Quakers put in place, it just was not punitive or profitable enough for other religions. America worships suffering and money, with a strong cultural bend towards wanting 'evil' to 'suffer', so people wanted revenge prisions that ensured people were punished, and they wanted them to generate as much money as possible. Which is what we ended up with.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      That was well said.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
    • Lyn

      Very well said! Best post I have seen on this website and true & accurate. Americans want others to suffer right up until something they do becomes illegal and it hits home so to speak then... Alabama didn't even have a self defense law until may of 2007... some people really are zombies repeating so called 'facts' like a mantra and have not a clue what the so called war on drugs has done to detroy some good people that vaporize a plant! Instead of taking pills and more pills that conservatives push on us... repubs are the biggest drug pushers ever.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  14. Jane

    I am not sure that I am for legalizing all drugs but pot should be. It is more beneficial and less toxic and addictive than alcohol. For the record, I don't use and given my asthma, it would be a disaster. I also drink little though all research shows one glass a day is very beneficial. I just think we did not learn our lesson from prohibition. Time to make money from pot and not spend money and wreck lives of people not doing anything to the detriment of society.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  15. Sam

    "shows that our politicians are learning from their mistakes"

    I don't like to give politicians too much credit,since they are often self-serving jerks, but in this case most Americans demanded politicians make the mistake they did. When they did it they cheered.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  16. Az

    Prison isn't working because it's been so liberalized! Think about, when we started a conviction that lead to prison time meant sacrificing comfort freedoms. Did the prisons that provided results (a deterrent) also provide fringe benefits, entertainment, and conjugal visits? Housing convicts in an atmosphere with all of the comfort of home without a job is not very smart if we wan t to make a point with a wrong doer!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Who told you this? IT isn't a cake ride .Many are dying and committing suicide from ill and inhumane conditions. Look at the Tony Lester case. Mentally ill and bled to death. The conditions in the Arizona prisons and across the globe are not a cake walk .They are a cruel environment breeding anger. These are still humans .Would you feel differently if it were your mother ? Many are suffering in isolation .Many have lost limbs from lack of medical treatment. I donot know where you have gotten your information. Uggggg .And guess what you are paying for deaths and suicides and wrong full deaths .Yes your tax dollars are paying for the inhumane treatment and deaths .

      August 18, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Reply
      • Two

        So your example is of one case, one specific scenario. I am calling BS on the rest of your so called facts.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • dangermousemh

      #1) People with untreated mental illness will self medicate with drugs, the % of people in prison with mental illness and addiction, and almost 2/3rds with untreated personality disorders.

      #2) It would be substantially cheaper to give people free access to mental health ...then to wait until they arrive in the justice system and incarcerate them.

      #3) anyone one of any faith whatsoever must acknowledge that the US justice system is the least humane way to deal with addiction, mental illness.

      #4) the justice system is entirely racist. The rates of incarceration for crack are 5x higher than for cocaine ...they are exactly the same molecule....and the saddest part of this statement is that the USA will probably pay attention to it, not because its inherently wrong ...but because we simply cannot afford to foot the bill for the racists.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  17. alan

    I agree 100% its time to let out non violent minor drug offenders BUT doesnt such a law require passage by congress? SInce when is it ok for government officials to over rule laws?

    August 18, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      When America incarcerates more humans than any where in the world.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • Two

      The AG is the top law enforcer not law maker. If the law makers pass a law or repeals laws then things are good to go

      August 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  18. W.G.

    All that wasted money thrown away for ratpublican feel good policies . What was it they said ??
    Three strikes your out !! Instead of educating them want to end poverty ? Educate . Want to cut down the crime rate ?
    Educate . It´s really simple but hard line stingy republicans stupidly only know one wayand that´s to be mean
    and stingy . What´s it gotten us ?? In more debt . republicans , who needs ´em .

    August 18, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Get it out my friend. It is the problem. They have a fry them mentality. A eye for an eye mentality.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  19. JCDavis

    If Obama were really interested in returning us to the "land of the free" instead of the "land of the un-free," he could begin pardoning non-violent prisoners. Like drug users and small time dealers. Pardon 1,000 every working day for the rest of his presidency, and our incarceration rate would be cut in half.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  20. Gandoni

    Highest incarceration rate?
    Land of the free?
    Why do they hate us?
    Revolution!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  21. William WIlliams

    Make prison require tough labor and take away the perks. Weight rooms, TV,s, computers, libraries, conjugal visits, hobby rooms, etc... for many people its as good or better than street life. Clearly it is not a disincentive given the high recidivism rate.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  22. Bubba Rydel

    more garbage from the black political machine and those black radical in power today. if you break the law you go to prison. I don't want these animals on our streets robbing me to feed their drug addictions. how many people will be robbed or murdered because of these black radicals. i'm telling you America, it is not racist to stand up for working honest people of all colors. enough is enough.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • dangermousemh

      and yet white people go to prison far less for the same crimes.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  23. w

    Its important to understand why criminals become criminals. When society leaves them behind they resort to crime.
    We as a society need to look at ourselves, and understand that we are responsible for people who do wrong.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • Tnnao

      society is already too soft on ppl.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Fantastic post.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  24. Name*medcannabis1

    Until they reschedule cannabis from a "1" it is all smoke and mirrors.Our wounded Veterans deserve safe access to medical cannabis therapy

    August 18, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  25. Name*Noni Lovechild

    Black stock dropped today. Amen

    August 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  26. paul

    Put them to work!!!!!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  27. Tnnao

    Why can't we just execute anyone who possesses drugs like they do in Singapore? The society would be a much better place!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  28. free man

    The diffference: Other countries incarcerate people bases on crime. America imprisons people based on race.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  29. IreneN

    You can't fight the market. Market rules. Take it from the liberal:-) For-profit health care and private prisons mean that free and healthy population is not too profitable for some...

    August 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • IreneN

      To clarify – there is only one way to run a successful for-profit business. Keep the revolving doors unlocked and welcome walk-ins 24/7...

      August 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
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