The United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world population, but if you're a prisoner, chances are you're locked behind bars in the land of the free, which accounts for 25 percent of the globe's incarcerated men and women -- nearly 2.4 million people.
Fueled by the war on drugs and “tough on crime” demagoguery, the U.S. prison population has surged over the past three decades, to the point that roughly one out of every 100 Americans is incarcerated – and one out of 32 is under some form of correctional supervision. As it stands now, an African-American male is more likely to be convicted of a felony than to graduate college.
That has to change.
Indeed, “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” writes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (!) in a recent Op-Ed coauthored by fellow conservative criminal justice reformer Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Writing in The Washington Post, Gingrich and Nolan argue that the over-reliance on incarceration in the U.S. is a problem the new Republican Congress needs to address – for both moral and pragmatic reasons. “We spent $68 billion in 2010 on corrections - 300 percent more than 25 years ago,” they write. “The prison population is growing 13 times faster than the general population. These facts should trouble every American.”
For years, debate over criminal justice policies has fallen into a traditional conservative-liberal trap, with Republicans on the one side calling for ever-more draconian laws to look “tough” on crime, and Democrats … well, doing the exact same thing, though presumably with not quite as much enthusiasm. Democracy!
But Gingrich and Nolan say the time for demagoguery is over, noting that throwing more and more non-violent offenders into prisons doesn't make us safer – more than half of those released from prison head right back within three years – and it's a practice both state and federal governments can ill afford to continue as they struggle with record budget deficits. While locking away prisoners and throwing away the key might make for a good campaign ad, “We can no longer afford business as usual with prisons,” they write, “and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”
Gingrich and Nolan's piece is part of campaign launched last month called “Right on Crime” – which includes the likes of former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese and the American Conservative Union's David Keene – that seeks to recast the debate over criminal justice policies by showing that even the most conservative right-wingers believe the country's prison building boom has gone too far, making the debate more about pragmatism than ideology. As they write in the Post, “If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane, effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.”
While not quite ready to do away with the war on drugs, Gingrich and Nolan say it's a waste of taxpayer money to send non-violent offenders to prison, where criminality is often nurtured rather than extinguished. And, notably, they take head-on the argument that the country's prison-building spree over the last few decades is responsible for improved public safety.
“While crime fell in nearly every state over the past seven years,” they note, “some of those with the largest reductions in crime have also lowered their prison population. Compare Florida and New York. Over the past seven years, Florida's incarceration rate has increased 16 percent, while New York's decreased 16 percent. Yet the crime rate in New York has fallen twice as much as Florida's. Put another way, although New York spent less on its prisons, it delivered better public safety.”
Gingrich and Nolan aren't bleeding-heart liberals, and they aren't proposing that murders receive manicures instead of prison time. As conservatives, they're proposing modest, pragmatic reforms to the criminal justice system -- reforms Republicans would do well to consider if they're really serious about cutting the nation's deficit (I have my doubts). And really, if you're so concerned about the growth of state power, nothing says "Big Government" more than locking up a person -- literally taking away all their freedom -- over a non-violent offense that displeases some jerk in Washington.
by Charles Davis