Growth of prison population reveals moral failure
December 5, 2006
There are too many people in prison in the United States.
In fact, we incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation in the world. On Nov. 29, the Department of Justice noted that nearly 2.2 million people are in federal and state prison in this country.
Increases in the prison population have continued despite recent decreases in crime rates, as well as sentencing reforms in some states.
One major reason for the increase is the U.S. government's unsuccessful war on drugs. According to the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch, this war is "the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population."
By 2000, more than 450,000 individuals were incarcerated in the United States for drug offenses, roughly the size of the entire U.S. prison and jail population of 1980, according to the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
In state prisons, 20 percent of all prisoners are currently in jail for drug offenses. In fact, state prison populations doubled from 1990 until 2004.
Federal prison numbers are even more pathetic. More than 55 percent of those currently in federal prisons are incarcerated for a drug offense, according to the nonprofit, Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
The rise in the prison populations has implications for our educational systems. U.S. spending on incarceration increased by more than 1,500 percent between 1977 and 1999, reports the Justice Policy Institute. By contrast, educational spending during this period increased by only 370 percent.
Congress must make the issue of skyrocketing prison populations a priority. And to do that, it must address the underlying causes.
First, it should shift funding from prisons and incarceration into schools and professional training.
Second, it should immediately repeal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.
Third, Congress and local and state governments should abandon planned prison construction projects.
Prison should be only for the violent and the predatory.
And the government's role ought to be to provide education, job training and higher education assistance for those in prison who want to go to college or trade school. It does no good to deprive inmates of the skills they will need when they eventually get out.
It is a moral failure to incarcerate more than 2 million people. Congress must act now.
Brian Gilmore is a lawyer and poet with two collections of poetry, including "Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: A Poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra" (Karibu Books, 2000). He can be reached at email@example.com.