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. Cd

    I only hope the Holder family are the one that feel the pain when a drug user relapse and drives high and murders a family high out of there mind.

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

      I guess its either that or ...offer treatment for addictions? why is it always incarcerate your neighbors with your conservatives? You cannot build enough prisons to solve poverty, mental illness and addiction. Your methods dont work. Try health care and education ...its worked all over the world. You should travel.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  2. lmc3

    You do not get to federal prison by selling a marijuana cigarette to a pal. You get to federal prison by selling , growing or smuggling large amount of drugs. The feds prevail on prosecution of this kind of offense. All I can say to highly placed offcials who want to close their eyes and ignore prosecution or imprisonment of current drug laws is "May drug addiction in a young person come to your family!" and you will soon understand why drug trafficking is a serious life altering offense that deserves imprisonment.

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

      Not true. There are a lot of folks in federal prisons that had small amounts of drugs. It depends on where you are when you are caught. An 1/8th of an ounce of marijuana in you bag at the airport, albeit not the smartest move, would get you a ridiculous minim 5 years in federal. There are folks in federal prison because of residue detected in artwork or crates. If you sell a joint on a street corner in front if a government building you get a mandatory 3 years. In a lot of cases it's not the amount, its where you are.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  3. Jimmy

    Federally, we don't lock up low level drug offenders. 90% of our cases are large scale drug organizations trafficking hundreds of pounds of meth, hundreds of kilos of coke/heroin, weapons and violence. These groups are almost always foreign nationals operating within our borders. The days of inner city crack offenders going to federal prison stopped in the 1990s. By the way, crack offenders were among the most violent and those stiff crack penalties worked. It pushed the crack dealers to shift to powder which was a different market and different tactics. This is another way to attach the drug war and appease voters for the democratic party. If you don't mind a welfare nation that has a huge drug and crime addiction and no desire to work because the government is going to pay them to stay home, keep supporting these moves.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  4. mkuske

    From a homeowner whose house has been burglarized 5 times in 8 years, this may be good for prisons but it's horrible for good working class people who don't want the possessions they worked so hard for to be stolen by some jerk looking for drug money. There is a reason crime rates have plummeted over the past 20 years. It's because criminals are all getting locked up. Don't lock them up and BOOM, crime will spike back to where it was.

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

      agree with you.that exactly will happen,let them loose and they will cut your neck loose..

      August 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  5. oneSTARman

    We spend 80 BILLION Dollars to Train Criminals to be more More effective and More dangerous Criminals.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  6. CmdrR

    Fix America:
    #1 ) Ban lobbying.
    Better yet, declare: 1 pulse = 1 vote. No more Corporate Plutocracy.
    WE ARE IN TROUBLE. And the corporations are not waiting or hiding. They are gunning for the middle class.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • Mario

      I absolutely agree, its idiotic that we allow special interest to interfere with normal politics (oxymoron).

      August 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • Terrance Kozak

      Must suck being poor, right?

      August 18, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  7. pjoe

    Drug users need intervention. Somehow we need to figure out what works in helping them get off of drugs and hopefully have a good chance for a normal productive life.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      So true .The cause and the rehabilitation .

      August 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • pacoder

      Definitely. All of those caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, high fructose corn syrup, prozac, prilosec, smartphone, television addled addicts definitely need some help. That's what you meant right?

      August 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
      • maria

        Amen , you are 100% right !

        August 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Anonymous

      If people want to use drugs, that is their responsibility, but they should be held absolutely responsible for any actions they take to support it, or because of it. No excuses.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
      • maria

        Exactly, they dig their own hole , actions had consequences , we all have troubles in our lives and we all don't use drugs .....the lame excuses should stop and let them in jail for a very long time ,many parolees get out and commit horrendous crimes and all because the drug abuse .....

        August 18, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
      • Homie

        I totally agree. Legalize all drugs, regulate, and tax them, and let the chips fall where they may. Treat addiction as a health problem, which it is, and quit criminalizing it. If someone steals, to support their habit, put them in jail. If someone drives impaired, treat it as a DUI, and let people be responsible for the choices they make.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
      • Janis

        @Maria, I bet you do use drugs. Do you drink coffee, coke, smoke cigarettes, take aspirin, prescription drugs, drink alcohol? Then you do drugs. How simple minded of you to think others deserve severe punishment just because you don't like the types of drugs they choose to do, while you think your drugs are perfectly okay. What hypocrisy. How about let's keep our big noses out of what other people choose to put in their body? It's not our business. Only people who commit crimes should be in jail, and nothing you decide to put in your own body should be a crime.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • JustAnotherVoter

      Secure the borders – problem solved.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • davidv

      Good idea. Lets build a rehab clinic in your neighborhood. How about across the street from where your kids go to school?

      August 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  8. Andrew Deex

    After seeing Sanjay Gupta's special "WEED", I can't help but wonder how much money and space would be saved if people were not locked up for Marijuana possession. Someone should do a story on that.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • oldguy

      less than 2% of all (state + fed) inmates are in for first time simple possession.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Reply
      • Lexagon

        So, only 45,000 people? Is that all?

        August 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
      • Janis

        Many more than that are repeat marijuana possession cases. How many lives is it acceptable to ruin, simply because they choose to use smoke a weed? A weed that is much safer than coffee, cigarettes and alcohol?

        August 18, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
      • DeeX

        I did not mean that it was a solution to the problem, however it is a start and I am sure many would rather have that space used for more violent people.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  9. Clarke

    So there is money in owing a prison, taxpayers money plus lobbyists. Maybe they should be put in prison for stealing and getting elected officials in their back pocket.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  10. Andy

    Send a non violent Marijuana user to jail, there's no way he won't come out at the very least a more violent person.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
  11. Rod KNee

    The reason prisons are full is becasue there is hardly any hard labor anymore. If prisons had mandatory hard labor except for cases where there was a clear disablity, there wouldn't be as much crime or as much overcrowding in prisons.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Yah slavery for 12 cents an hour. Would you work for 12 cents an hour? Yah work them to death .You are so uniformed. These aren't prison camps? Do you work building Fema camps?

      August 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
      • Andy Ramsay

        No, not a prison camp a PRISON. Camping is fun, prison shouldn't be.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • celeste jones

      I agree if prison was not such a resort experience people who try to not go there. Hard labor and bread and water for food. All should where pink or black and white uniforms too.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
      • Janis

        Who tries to go there? Starving people for marijuana possession sounds reasonable to you? You need to seriously look at your moral stance on this issue.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  12. Deex

    I would also have to agree that the current system of incarceration does not rehabilitate, it just makes criminals have deeper mental health issues and also teaches them new tricks of the trade. Its defiantly a lose, lose situation.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      No it isn't .We can speak until someone hears .Or we can be closed minded and fear can be our friend.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  13. JC

    The companies that run our prisons also have their hands in on other government agencies and programs. Everyone knows about Haliburton. They run prisons, prison hospitals, are involved in VA hospitals, run covert security teams (mercenaries), have several defense contracts through General Dynamics, and run training programs for tactical agencies (CIA, FBI, Secret Service, DEA, and ATF). The problem is that companies like Haliburton hedge their risk on several levels. If they were to lose money in one sector, they have other cash streams from the government that keep them in the red. The real problem is that with their hold on the military complex, they will use their leverage and control of those contracts to ensure the prison contracts aren't devalued. They will pull out all stops to protect that revenue stream. If the government takes on the prison lobby, good for them, but its gonna be a much bigger fight than they realize.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  14. Jerry

    Us libertarians have been saying that mandatory drug sentences are too harsh and inhmane.i guess the major news sources only consider it worth talking about when the attorney general or some other government official says something about it.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Reply
    • Ben

      Correct. It's not news when a few people with idiosyncratic ideals say something. When one of the most powerful people in the country takes heed and starts to change their policy position, it is news. Is there some problem with that?

      August 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Reply
      • retard alert

        Yes, of course. Are you some sort of retard?

        August 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  15. McBob79

    Yes, but the dirty little secret that mr holder isn't telling you is that the offenders in question have committed numerous violations before ever seeing prison. These are not people who are caught with a joint. These are multi offenders. Further, the facts show that there is a propensity for increased violence from users and sellers the longer they use and sell. So this sounds all rosy in terms of how the media portrays mr holder's comments but reality and facts are usually like a hard slap in the face.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • Danko Ramone

      Not when it comes to pot smokers. If anything, over time, they become even less likely to be violent, and more lazy and laid back.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Reply
    • Janis

      Alcohol drinkers have a higher propensity to commit violent crimes too, but since when do we incarcerate based on propensity? Another fact you are ignoring is most of those multiple offenses are for the same thing, drug usage or possession.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • davidv

      Are you saving that crackheads support there habit by stealing and robbing? And putting 10,000 crackheads on the street will increase crime? Maybe Eric forgot about that.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Reply
      • Janis

        If they steal, than they should go to jail for that. Where did you get the number that 10,000 crack heads steal to get their drugs? What makes you think all crack heads steal? Do people that are not crack heads steal? Shouldn't we just be prosecuting people that steal crack head or not? If theft is your concern why not talk about theft?

        August 18, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  16. Larry

    All this feel good hot air from one who should be in prison himself.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  17. kamanalono

    They who write the laws in this country are white men while they who enforce those laws are also white men. And they who are paid to incarcerate the prisoners are white men also! Prisons, then, are a money-generating industry of the white men, by the white men and for the white men.

    It costs approximately $50,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner for one year. There are more than one million prisoners in the prisons of the united states. That means that it is costing the white taxpayers ($50,000 x 1,000,000,000) $50 billion dollars per year (at the least) to imprison its convict population. And its the white men who are making all that money.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • A Brown

      Who are paying the taxes (costs) for this system? White men if we use your logic. What is the problem. Do not do the crime if you can not do the time.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Reply
    • eddhur

      it is easy to see what you are hater of white men

      August 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • JustAnotherVoter

      I respect your opinion, however, if they can't do the time, don't do the crime regardless of their ethnic background or who arrested them.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • Danko Ramone

      Oddly enough, black men work in the prison industry as well, from gaurds on up. And a large number of black men take graduate with honors from the prison system's "Be a Worse Criminal" training program.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • davidv

      Its wrong for white people to incarcerate black crackheads because they are black. How about we send the black crackheads to your neighborhood? I am sure that will be OK with you.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  18. KaRL

    Why do we have to trust politicians for the problem? This can only be solved on social and family level. America needs no more politicians, but moral people who can keep the system of the country running! Why don't Liberal media admit such obvious fact?!! Politician cannot solve everything!!!!

    August 18, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • Janis

      What makes you think there is a lack of moral people?

      August 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  19. Eliot Ness

    We lock them up for making dumb terrorist jokes on social media.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • Janis

      True. I am good with locking up violent offenders, but it is immoral to lock people up for such small infractions as putting something in their body and making bad jokes. A lot of these people on here act like they have never made a mistake.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  20. Dean

    Forget the user. Life in prison for those who sell, manufacture, grow or distribute drugs.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
    • Janis


      August 18, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Reply
    • Rich

      Is that what they teach in your church? Drugs should be decriminalized, you should live by your own morals, you should live your own life and if it's a short one in a drug haze, so be it..

      August 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Reply
      • Janis

        What does church have to do with anything? we are talking about our government here. What I was taught in school is we are supposed to be a "free country". Freedom means that you should have the right to control what you wish to put in your own body. I support freedom. I do not wish to live in a totalitarian nation. Surely, there can be no greater freedom than the right to make decisions for one's own body. Of course you should live your own life, by your own morals. It's a damn sight better than letting someone else do your moralizing for you. And Rich, my life has already been longer than most. I smoke marijuana when I choose to, and (gasp), it's hardly in a drug haze. I am in the medical field. I save lives, Rich. I have a degree, earn a living and provide great value to society. What do you do?

        August 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  21. Arthur

    Deport the foreign-born amongst them.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  22. Bob

    Just looking for ways to compensate for criminals. Why can't folks follow our laws? Why is that not our expectation? Why is it so important to some that criminals and non-criminals should be the same? Poor decisions lead to poor consequences. No one forces anyone to break the law.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Because society caused this issue. Imprisonment for our mentally ill and self medicaters. Get information on this issue.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • Janis

      Bob it is really simple. The laws are wrong. There are people who choose to smoke marijuana, because they want to, and in a free country that should be their right.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • davidv

      "Why can't folks follow our laws?"

      Because they are criminals? Is this the correct answer?

      August 18, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Reply
      • Janis

        Because the law is just as wrong on marijuana prohibition as it was on alcohol prohibition. Any knowledgeable can see that.

        August 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  23. Dennis D.

    Prohibition is on its last leg.
    Freedom is letting go of old moral code, imposed by the fortunate few.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  24. ChicagLibertarian

    Once again this Executive Branch is suspending the written law for policy reasons. It does not have the authority to do this, even if you agree with it on policy terms.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  25. Marcus

    This is kind of information American people will not see ever on CNN : " WikiLeaks posts 400 gigabytes of encrypted ‘insurance’ data online."

    August 18, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  26. Eric Perez

    I am a recently recently prisoner from New York State Department of Corrections. What this country really has to be worried about is the fact that the government spends millions of dollars on a "prison program" which I have been the subject of for the past two years. They basically use the prisons as snitch factories and their private play grounds. They use re scripted television programs and deliver messages about the conspiracy against me. The programming uses my exwife, children, family and other people involved in this in scenarios which are shocking to the human consciousness to include murders, kidnappings and other crimes in order to inflict the maximum amount of psychological duress on its subject and for the entertainment of the inmates and guards. All of my private information was leaked to the prison population as my life was made into one huge interactive game. They also use radio stations which broadcast messages into the prison using live djs and by changing the lyrics to popular hip hop songs and even producing their own music for this. This continues to this day as I am now being used as a subject in the county I reside in. The media and population has been turned against me. Al of my rights and childrens' rights are violated as well. Everyone I have asked for help in this such as the Vera Institute of Justice, FCC, DOJ, and others won't even answer me. The government spends millions on this program and there are millions of people participating in this inside and outside of prison placing lives at danger deliberately. I have lived this, and can attest to the government willingly torturing me in prison at the cost of millions.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  27. celeste jones

    Maybe if we killed all of the child molesters and murders we would save money too. It bothers me that people convicted of a crime would be set free just to save money. How about the get fed bread and water and have no air conditioning? How much money would that save?

    August 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Reply
    • Janis

      Have you ever gone over the speed limit, accidently ran a red light, jay walked, become drunk in public? I am sure that most of us at sometime have broken the law. The fact that people have broken some rule does not mean that we should starve them to death, as you indicated. What a cold hearted, unforgiving, judgmental piece of work you are.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  28. Kurt

    Rap music taught me that drugs and violence will bring me respect as will prison time, so keep corrupting us youth through the advertising of drugs and violence in this urban lifestyle based on music and the prison is sure to be full.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  29. JustAnotherVoter

    Last week, Campbell Brown (CNN) also reported that there are 200,000 criminals in prison. 50% of them 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. It seems that it's more cost effective to keep the longer prison sentences versus having to arrest them again and have taxpayers fund one or more future trials.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Reply
    • davidv

      But thats not what Eric says. If you let crackheads out of jail they will become law abiding citizens.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  30. Terrance Kozak

    Typical Democrats, the party with no morals, giving the American people an explanation on why criminals should go free.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Reply
    • Janis

      So locking people up for having a drug problem is moral to you? It seems to me that forgiveness, and treatment are far more moral than locking up some teenager for smoking pot and throwing away the key. some of you people need to really learn about compassion and love of your fellow man.

      August 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Reply
      • Janis

        P.S. As a liberal Christian, my morals come from what Jesus taught on compassion, love and forgiveness. Where do yours come from?

        August 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
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