Some may point to Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent declaration that something must be done about the way we convict and put away people in this country. Others may point to fresh cultural statements like the surprise Netflix hit, Orange Is The New Black. Still others may point to the string of recent high-profile events like the Trayvon Martin case and numerous school shootings.
Whatever the reason, the verdict is clear. Prison is back, baby.
In the 1970s and 1980s, our national motto was “tough on crime” and mandatory maximum sentencing guidelines became the new normal. Since then, prisons and the people within them have been virtually ignored by political candidates and mainstream media outlets in the wake of more sensational post-9/11 national security concerns. For far too long, a subject that should have been a critical electoral and legislative issue has been brushed under the rug as political kryptonite.
Slowly but surely, voices from the media, government leadership, and pop culture have begun to redirect a harsher spotlight on the plethora of questions surrounding crime and punishment in modern-day America—specifically, raising questions about how it is managed by our public institutions.
Are our incarceration rates too high? (Yes.) Are our sentencing guidelines fair? (No.) Is the racial disparity in conviction rates really as bad as they say? (No; it’s worse.) Are we throwing way too much money at a system that simply doesn’t work? (Without a doubt.)
You might be thinking . . . That’s interesting; but how does it affect me? I don’t have a brother or an uncle in prison. I don’t work as a correctional officer. I’m not worried about getting sent away myself.
Fair points. For better or for worse, though, the prevalence of crime and incarceration is a reliable indicator of any nation’s public priorities and social well-being. As sociologist Richard Quinney so aptly argues, “What is important in the study of crime is everything that happens before crime occurs. The question of what precedes crime is far more significant to our understanding than the act of crime itself. Crime is the reflection of something larger and deeper.”
Here are three reasons you should pay attention to what’s going on with our prison industrial complex, regardless of your background or personal experience:
1. The jailbird canary in the coal mine. Our bloated prison population rate is a bad omen of larger inequalities in our society. Poverty and inequality are the two main causes of criminality – so what does it say about the state of our democracy and cultural psychology that income inequality in the US has been steadily worsening for the last 30 years? Case in point: murder rates are three times higher in more unequal countries like the US where the top 20 percent of the income bracket earns exponentially more than the bottom 20 percent, than in countries like Norway where the income gap is considerably smaller. Whether you’re regularly featured on Rich Kids of Instagram or mainly survive off Top Ramen and ketchup, it’s time to heed American writer Noah Webster’s warning: “The causes which destroyed the ancient republics were numerous; but in Rome, one principal cause was the vast inequality of fortunes.”
2. Bills, bills, bills. No matter who you ask, you’ll get an earful about our country’s deficit, spending levels, and stagnant economy. Now is the time to call out prisons and law enforcement as major benefactors of excessive and ineffective spending – $80 billion in 2010, to be exact. Curiously, a larger law enforcement budget does not translate into lower crime rates: the US spends more than any other country on law enforcement and its prisons (besides the UK), but boasts the world’s highest incarceration and repeat offender rates.
Let’s repeat that: your precious tax dollars are being funneled into, literally, the second-worst criminal justice system in the world. Studies show that your money would be better spent on education, health, and social security, since countries that invest more in those programs typically spend less on their prison systems.
3. We’re #1! We’re #1! The US has held on tight since 2002 to its first-place rank as the most prolific incarcerator in the world, with more than 2.3 million people under some form of correctional control. In other words, the US currently holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners, despite only representing five percent of the global population. Granted, our students rank 25th out of 30 countries in math performance and cannot read at their grade level. But hey – at least we’re winning at something! In an age of increasing global competition in trade, education, and employment, can we really afford to be the poster child for imprisonment?
The good news is that key congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have promised to push for a revamping of our criminal sentencing guidelines before the end of the year, with the goals of deflating our prison populations and reducing penalties for nonviolent crimes. This is revolutionary: Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress may actually work effectively together on a major policy issue!
After all, our reputation as the ‘land of the free’ is pretty awesome – and also at jeopardy. That’s something everyone can care about.
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