Via Crooked Timber, the BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics) notes that the US now has nearly 7 million adults either in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. “At year-end one in every 31 adults were under correctional supervision, which was 3.2 percent of the U.S. adult population.” Damn!
Of that 7 million, about 2.1 million are behind bars, and the largest portion of those are people in state prisons. When you add up the state and federal prison systems, about a quarter of every American behind bars is in the clink for drug offenses – and drug arrests have been increasing.
(Public order offenses, in contrast, have apparently and quite suddenly dropped way down. Anyone know what that’s about?)
I do drugs, sometimes (not often, because I’m too cheap to spend money on drugs). The vast majority of my friends either do drugs or have done drugs. I bet that’s true of most of the folks in congress, and most cops, as well. What’s wrong with this picture? (That’s the question I’d like to see every politician, every crime policy expert and every pundit answer: have you ever done illegal drugs?)
As bad as the waste of tax dollars is, the injustice of keeping people behind bars for victimless crimes is worse. The “war on drugs” is an expensive failure; a public health approach would be far more sensible, but is politically unthinkable. And as long as the main victims of our drug war are poor urban blacks – a group with no money to give to politicians and no voice in government – change will remain politically unthinkable.
With a few exceptions, I don’t think people should be put in prison for property offenses, either; I’d rather see most of those folks with a band around their ankles, living on their own dime, holding jobs, and having their paychecks garnished to pay restitution to their victims. Sure, monitoring is expensive, but so is keeping people in prison.
However, I do want violent people behind bars – and most of the increase in the US prison population is due to an increase in prisoners convicted of violent crimes. And it’s hard to argue effectively against the “throw ‘em in prison” strategy when violent crime has in fact been going down.