Thursday, February 28, 2008

1 in 100

It was bound to happen soon. Newspapers and media outlets today carried stories on a just published survey that places the nation's jail and prison population at an all time high proportion of the overall population, the magic number, 100 to 1. The report by the PEW Center on the States (read it here) shows that America's thirty year old prison binge has continued. In the early 1970s, fewer than 1 out of every 1,000 adult Americans were behind bars. Today its 1 in 100.

Actually, 1 out of every 100 is an overall figure that masks severe racial, age, and gender disparities that are well developed in the PEW report. Interestingly white men, and black women, both hover around that precise number, but white men were far less likely to be incarcerated then black men (1 in 15) and black women far more likely than white women (1 in 100 compared to 1 in 355).

The PEW report has a message, costs are rising astronomically (due to aging and higher medical costs) while the crime suppression pay off of imprisonment has long ago past optimal levels and is now probably producing more crime. These are important considerations, but in a year of democratic renewal when unusually larger numbers of people have been participating in the highly competitive primary campaigns, let us go beyond the fiscal impact and pay off, to more fundamental questions for our democracy.

First, can any society based on individual freedom and private choice, survive having 1 percent of its adults (and disproportionately the young who will be here for a while) going through a process that has a tendency to obliterate human capital, destroy the likelihood of future family formation, and encourage attitudes favorable to interpersonal violence, racism, and misogyny.

Second, over the last 20 years, while spending on prison has gone up 121 percent in inflation controlled dollars (compared to 21 percent for higher education), a massive unfunded mandated has accumulated in the form of millions of alumni of the prison system, many of them rendered economically and socially isolated by the experience of incarceration. We need to create a program like the environmental super-fund (come to think of it we need to refinance the original one as well) designed to pay for the clean up of industrially polluted locations, aimed at restoring the social ecology of communities damaged by mass imprisonment.

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