Time for a Change
Time Magazine published an article this week about the rising crime rate in midsize American cities. Pointing to the purported causes of this upswing, the author, Kathleen Kingsbury, spends one-third of the article on the decrease in the number of police officers (due to a combination of budget cuts and the Iraq war), another one-third lamenting the increase in parolees from prison, and then a brisk three paragraphs on the problem of high unemployment rates.
Not once in this 1,700 word, 17-paragraph story does Kingsbury mention the mass incarceration of our citizens as a possible cause of crime (or as a failed solution exemplified by the rising crime rates she cites). Instead, Kingsbury writes that because of the large numbers of prisoners being released and because so many sentences are "running out", "it's clear that more crimes are being committed because there are simply more criminals around to commit them." Kingsbury implies that the solution is more incarceration (i.e., more cops to make more arrests), tougher laws (longer sentences to keep people in jail), and stricter parole regulations (so there are less parolees on the street).
Perhaps Kingsbury forgets that the United States has maniacally relied on such a strategy for decades, and has failed. Perhaps she does not realize that while our prison population grew by 462,006 between 1910 and 1980, in the 1990s alone it rose by an estimated 816,965. Kingsbury should recognize that the reason there are more people getting released today than 20 years ago is because our prison population has quadrupled since 1980; with such a dramatic increase, no matter how harsh the sentences, simple mathematics (not soft sentences) will dictate that the number of people being released each day will rise. Is Kingsbury aware that our prison population continues to grow because we are imprisoning people at a higher rate than we are releasing them?
Our federal and state governments have put more police on the streets before, made more arrests for smaller and smaller infractions, forced judges to impose lengthy mandatory sentences, prosecuted children as adults, repeatedly used the death penalty, and vastly expanded the prison industry. The result? A prison population whose breathtaking size has become an urgent human rights issue (not to mention an international embarrassment), resulting in America comprising 5% of the world's population but 25% of the its incarcerated population. And yet gun violence is commonplace, drugs flow from inner city streets to dirt roads in small towns, and the individuals hit hardest by street-level crime and mass imprisonment find their communities fractured, galaxies away financially from the ever-wealthier upper class.
Kingsbury, like many others, seems to conceive of prison in its most innocent and theoretical form --- as a mechanism to prevent crime (by removing or deterring law-breakers from society). However, when prisons are used recklessly as a first resort, as an avenue for people to get rich, and as a race- and class-based means of controlling certain communities, prisons can actually create more crime by oppressing poor communities, dissolving family structures, creating severe emotional, mental, and physical harm to inmates and their loved ones, and pushing countless individuals (many as they enter adulthood) permanently to the fringes of society through society's enforcement of unforgiving laws punishing people with criminal records (particularly through the disqualification from various jobs, financial aid, educational opportunities, and public housing).
Is Kingsbury aware that the war on drugs, which she mentions once in neutral passing in association with the Reagan Administration (as if it began and ended during his presidency), is still being waged relentlessly, so that today the number of people in prison in America for drug offenses equals the number of all incarcerated people in Western Europe?
If the 2.2 million people we have sent to prison were all violent offenders, the argument for mass incarceration would be stronger (but still highly problematic and practically untenable for all of the above reasons). However, the nationwide violent crime rate has held steady since our incarceration fury began. Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that 75% of new state inmates had been convicted of non-violent offenses. In 2000, according to the Department of Justice, less than half of all state inmates were serving time for violent offenses. In other words, the majority of people in prison were not convicted of rape and murder, but of selling drugs or committing property offenses.
Instead of publishing articles in major, much-read publications on the subject of crime, police, and parolees without even a footnote to America’s massive prison industrial complex, it is long overdue that we admit defeat in the drug war and focus our resources on investing heavily in the educational, economic, and social programs of struggling communities, allowing for the closing down of many prisons (and the ensuing employment search for all those people currently profiting handsomely off of the prison industry). In other words, it is time we create a much healthier, humane, effective, and long-term crime-fighting tool than aggressive policing, criminalization of drugs, and prison sprawl: well-funded, well-educated, prosperous communities. We have a long way to go.