Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Why are so many Americans in prison?

The next time you are aboard an airplane in the United States, think about this: the Department of Justice predicts that one out of fifteen Americans will spend time in prison sometime during their lifetimes. If you were on an airplane with 416 passengers aboard (the capacity of a Boeing 747), figure that statistically speaking about 27 of them will have spent time in prison by the time they die (that's about how many sit in the first-class cabin).

One quarter of all the prisoners in the world are imprisoned in the United States of America, which has 5% of the world's population. 737 out of every 100,000 US citizens is currently in prison, by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. That's 5.3 times the incarceration rate in the United Kingdom, and 6.6 times the incarceration rate in China and 12.5 times the rate in Norway. The state of Maine, which has the lowest incarceration rate of any state in the United States (with 148 prisoners per 100,000 people), still has a higher incarceration rate than the UK.

According to the Department of Justice website, about 52% of the prisoners in the United States are serving sentences for violent crimes. 20% are there for drug offenses. 57% of prisoners in Federal prisons are there for drug-related crimes, as opposed to 21% of those in state prisons.

The Daoist philosopher Laozi (Lao-tzu) observed that the sole cause of crime is the making of laws. One way to reduce crime, therefore, is to make fewer activities illegal. Most people would probably not favor decriminalizing such activities as intentional homicide, assault and battery and rape. But aside from some activities that are clearly so disruptive to the social harmony that people who do them should probably be given an opportunity to reform their conduct, there are some activities that should probably never have been considered criminal in the first place.

Two activities that are obvious candidates for being decriminalized are drug-related offenses and coming into the country with the purpose of making a livelihood. America's immigration laws are absurdly exclusive. One way to eliminate some crime is to open the borders so that people seeking honest work are not classified as dishonest just because they seek ways to enter the country without being kept on the outside by America's ridiculously overprotective restrictions. The campaign to “secure our borders” is little but a thinly disguised xenophobia like the nativism of the 19th century that resulted in ugly populist campaigns against Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews and Asians, not to mention a trumped-up invasion of Mexico that resulted in an illegal and unnecessary war—the first of many the United States would wage.

A second way to make a dramatic reduction of the country's prison population would be to give drug addicts who seek to overcome their addictions state-funded addiction therapy. And drug addicts who have no desire to overcome their addictions should be given access to safe and legal drugs, just as tobacco and coffee addicts and alcoholics are. Making substances illegal serves only to make them prohibitively expensive, thus increasing the likelihood that the addict will commit crimes to make money to pay for artificially expensive substances. While the campaign to secure our borders is a war against poor people from neighboring countries, but not against poverty itself, the “war on drugs” is a war waged by the American government against Americans.

It is time to look for congressional representatives, senators and presidential candidates who have the imagination to seek creative and effective alternatives to the kind of thinking that has resulted in needless suffering to thousands of addicts and millions of hard-working neighbors who seek nothing more sinsiter than to make an honest livelihood in the United States.


Jayarava said...

Hey Dayamati,

It seems ironic that the USA can lecture China about human rights when it imprisons so many more of it's people doesn't it? I suppose one could argue that the Chinese are more oppressive to those still "at liberty", but which country calls itself the Land of the Free and defender of the "free world", eh? It's an interesting observation. Mike Moore had already highlighted the alarmingly high murder rate in the US. High prices to pay for being able to call the president an idiot and not be shot.

I'm not entirely sure about your attitude to drug crime. My reservations stem from the damage that people addicted to drugs do to their families and loved ones. Seems to me that the idea of taking drugs as a "victimless crime" is missing the mark.

Whether a state should try to prevent people from harming themselves is I suppose a moot point. You can't move in the UK without someone invoking health and safety regulations which prohibit almost anything with a risk of injury - it's only a matter of time until crossing the street is deemed to dangerous for the average person. This in a country where people regularly are run over by trains... they don't all seem to be suicides, some are just stupid.


Dayamati said...

Thanks for your comment, Jayarava. You raise an important issue, and have given me an opportunity to clarify my position. You said:

I'm not entirely sure about your attitude to drug crime.

My tendency is to see addiction as an affliction that is best treated through counselling and medical intervention rather than imprisonment. Treatment is usually effective only when people seek it as a result of being weary of the effects of their addiction. You also said:

My reservations stem from the damage that people addicted to drugs do to their families and loved ones.

Yes, addiction causes a lot of suffering to a lot of people. My view is that all of them need compassionate treatment and that none of them need punishment.

Jayarava said...

OK. I see what you mean. Punishment is not helpful if they are just addicted to something that is addictive. Probably started taking it because they were unhappy anyway. So locking them up starts to look like cruelty.