The US criminal justice system, evidence of a massive societal failure

The country I live in has a criminal justice problem. A big one. In 2009, 7,225,800 people were in jail or prison or on probation or parole. That’s 3.1% of the population. Rates of incarceration have been sharply rising for a generation. To put it in perspective, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Higher than those of Russia, Cuba, China, Iran, higher than any other country’s. It’s so high that more people are incarcerated in the US than in China, even though China has four times the population of the US.

This represents a massive societal failure. It could be that people in the US are so highly criminal that this is what we could call the “natural” rate of incarceration, but I doubt it. There’s no reason for the rate of incarceration to start shooting upward in 1980 if we are simply more criminal.

If the underlying culture of the United States did not make the country more criminal on the supply side, the only other explanation is that there was more criminality on the demand side. Who are these people demanding increased criminality? There are a few culprits, but in my estimation almost all of it is due to US government policy.

However, it’s not simply Congress, the prison lobby, the prison guard lobby, the prosecutors lobby, the police lobby, and all the other usual suspects behind the growth of government. The segment of society that deals with criminals and criminal behavior is larger than the sum of these lobbies, and this segment as a whole started to use imprisonment as a solution to problems at a far higher rate. Ultimately, ordinary citizens in their capacity as voters were part of this group as well.

I don’t have the whole solution. I’m not a criminal justice expert. But surely it contains at least some combination of these elements:

1. Ending the second prohibition. This is bound to happen some day, and it’s a terrible thing, so let’s cut it out right now. Overnight millions of criminals can become productive members of society merely by undoing a stupid and destructive legal classification.
2. Thinking about the people we trust to run the criminal justice system. What incentives and constraints do they face? Why should we believe that their interests always run in the same direction as the public’s?
3. Thinking about the conditions that lead people into the criminal justice system. A large part of this is contained in point 1, but not all of it. What led to the conditions that now lead so many people into the criminal justice system? This line of inquiry is wide and deep. If part of the problem is conditions in the “ghetto”, how did city planners do harm? How and why is the public education system failing people? How do the thousand-and-one economic regulations at all levels cut off opportunity for the poor?
4. Considering the racial impact. People already focus on this, but not enough if you ask me. Blacks and Hispanics are hit all out of proportion by current practices in the criminal justice system. If I were a community leader in either group I would be agitating all the time.
5. Assessing the values we express by these practices. As I write this, Jon Corzine is implicated in “reassigning” $1.6 billion from a failing enterprise into a safe account. He’s a free man. Shoplifting and bad check writing pale in comparison to this kind of crime, yet people are given over to the criminal justice system every day for these activities and punished much more harshly than it looks like Corzine will be.


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