Sunday, March 02, 2008

Locked into a prison mentality

The Land of Liberty now imprisons one of every 99 adults, a criminal milestone that deserves more than a punch line about law and order.

Forget, for a moment, the causes or the results of putting 2.3-million adults behind bars in the United States. Just consider the sobering context: The United States leads the planet in incarceration, in raw numbers and per capita rate. No other country is even close.

China, with more than four times the population, imprisons a third fewer. Russia, at one of every 159 adults, has the second highest rate behind the United States. Cuba locks up one in 204, South Africa one in 293, Iran one in 450. The U.S. incarceration rate is now seven times higher than Canada, 10 times more than Italy and 12 times greater than Japan.

These numbers are supplied by the Pew Center on the States, and one striking feature of its report is the extent to which conservative state lawmakers are now looking for alternatives. No one is trying to push dangerous inmates back on the streets, but some states are looking anew at how they deal with drug offenders and probation violators and older inmates under mandatory sentences.

Dave Heineman, Republican governor of Nebraska, introduced a work program for nonviolent offenders last year, saying: "The concept we've embraced through community corrections is that there are better solutions to this challenge than to simply build another maximum-security prison."

Florida might want to listen. While other big states find ways to reduce prison population and crime at the same time, Florida continues to stuff its prisons. Just last year, Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through a law that can lock up even those who have minor probation violations.

According to Pew, Florida is second in the nation in the share of general government revenue it spends on corrections. That financial measurement is salient, since that same pot of money is used to pay for public schools and universities. Across the United States, prison spending over the past two decades has grown at five times the rate of education spending.

The questions posed by these prison numbers are profound, which is why the usual political bromides are inadequate.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial
Published March 1, 2008

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