America has had a long love affair with incarcerating its citizens, in fact, our puritanical need to strip away personal freedom has led us to alpha the pack in imprisonment percentages among other affluent countries. Currently in the U.S., we have about 2.4 million people behind bars; that’s one in every 100 Americans. If you go a step further and add all the people who are on parole and probation, that number jumps to a staggering one in 31 Americans who is caught up in our legal system. The end result is Chronic Incarceration to the highest degree. America incarcerates five times as many people as Britain, nine times as many as Germany, and 12 times as many as Japan. We, as a nation, are incarcerating so many people that our prisons are overcrowded by 60%. Back in 1970, it was only one in every 400 hundred Americans that was incarcerated. When compared with today’s jaw-dropping statistic of one in 100, that’s a clear 75% increase in incarceration over the past 40 years. These scary facts make the U.S. seem more like an authoritarian regime rather than the land of the free.
Since politicians never want to be seen as “soft on crime”, things like the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing never get lightened or removed from law. In fact, they usually tend to get worse as new politicians try to prove that they are tougher on crime than their predecessors. When murderers, rapists, and all other violent offenders are locked up, there is no doubt the streets are safer. However, locking up non-violent offenders and drug addicts to the tune of 60% overcrowding is not only crazy, but it simply makes horrible financial sense to boot. The number of criminals currently in prison in relation to narcotics charges, due to the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing, has increased 13 fold since their inception in 1980. Many of these people are petty dealers and addicts, not violent criminals. Since the chances of these people presenting a physical danger to anyone in their community is highly unlikely, incarcerating them is a waste of money and a borderline violation of civil liberties. In following the spirit of the law, the saying ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ rings true here. Should addicts be legally punished for addiction, which is clinically classified as a disease? Should marijuana related incidents be truly classified as crimes, when in neighboring states one simply needs a card to visit a dispensary that provides medical marijuana, which can be simply obtained by one’s doctor for the treatment of things as trivial as mere headaches and body pains? Instead of blindly chucking the non-violent offenders into the meat grinder that is the American legal system, in turn it seems the obvious necessity is treatment, probation or simply community service.
Just to exemplify how out of whack some of these laws are, take for instance the punishment for possessing 200 Percocet (an often abused pain-killer). The reprocussion for possessing 200 units of this particular opiate is higher than that of armed rape by a whopping 15 years! Certainly everyone can agree that armed rape is a much worse crime than drug possession. These rigid sentencing laws have shifted the power from the judges who can evaluate each criminal on a case to case basis to the prosecutors who are backed up by these ridiculous mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Twenty-five out of the 50 states even have laws in place that lock up habitual offenders for life. Meaning if the offender commits the same crime three times, the sentence is prison for the rest of one’s natural life. Currently more than 3,700 people are serving life sentences for non violent crimes in California alone. The next time any of those 3,700 people will see a glimpse of the sun which those in the outside world take for granted, it will merely be fragments of rays through the cracks in the zipper of a body bag. People just like Alabama’s Jerald Sanders have been victimized by this lopsided sentencing, who will now serve a life term for stealing a bicycle under his own state’s rigid ‘three strikes and you’re out’ program.
America’s addiction to incarceration is also a very expensive habit, ranging from $18,000 a year to $50,000 a year, depending on what state the convicts are housed in. Since the recession, many states have turned to reducing sentencing for non-violent offenders to save money; perhaps the economic downturn has had some positive effects, as this is a good way in which to make more suitable punishments materialize for these minor incidents. Mississippi has reduced the amount of time non-violent offenders must serve of their sentences, from 85% to 25%, with good behavior. Texas has been making a huge move towards non-jail related penalties such as community service and probation. Even New York, who has a record of being hard on crime, has repelled almost all of their mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for drug offenders. This caused the first inmate population dip in the U.S. since 1974. This is a good trend and should be encouraged; the money saved can be used for drug treatments, probation, better policing, and more cost-effective methods of crime prevention.
A country that has one in every 31 citizens wrapped up in its legal system is a police state–not a democracy. We need clearer and more concise laws that are easy to interpret and enforce, and they must also represent and make sense for the day and age we live in, as well as have fair and adequate punishments for the people that break them. To spend $50,000 a year putting a person away for life for stealing a bicycle is absolute lunacy. The only way a human being should ever see a jail cell is if he or she has committed a violent crime or a massive fraud. That should be something we can all agree on.