Americans Behind Bars

Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.

According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, there are more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails: one in every 99 adults. We are by far the world’s largest jailer. Our closest rival, China, has a third fewer prisoners than we do, despite having four times as many people.

The numbers get worse the closer you look: One in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars. And for African-Americans, the number is one in nine.

Then there are the costs: an average of nearly $24,000 a year to incarcerate one inmate and that does not count the building. At least five states spend more on corrections than on higher education. For the rest, the cost of corrections is “saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs none of them can afford.”

These increases in prison population and the “soaring costs” are the result of policy choices we have all made. Since the late ’80s, elected officials have responded to the public’s fear of crime by lengthening sentences and enacting laws like “three-strikes” and you are out. I know, I was a Senator and Attorney General during that time and was in the midst of it.

If these measures had made us safer, they might be worth it. But they have not. For starters, most of the increase in prison populations took place after crime rates began to go down and continued even after they bottomed out. In a sense, the process is on “auto-pilot,” doing what it does regardless of the crime rates.

As a result, according to David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation, “we are not incarcerating all the people who commit serious crimes-but we are probably incarcerating people who even don’t need to be.”

Among the people “who don’t need to be” in prison are nonviolent offenders-especially nonviolent drug offenders. The lion’s share of the increase in prison population has been driven by drug offenders. And we are not talking “drug kingpins,” either. As Kentucky’s Justice Secretary put it, “We are just getting the people who went out and got caught. We are getting the low-hanging fruit.”

This cannot continue indefinitely. “Tough” has had its chance-it is time for “smart.” We need to punish “low-risk offenders” in ways “that save tax dollars, hold offenders accountable,” and actually rehabilitate them.

This is the position that Prison Fellowship and its criminal justice affiliate, Justice Fellowship, have advocated for nearly three decades. Non-dangerous offenders should be punished in ways that “make it more likely [that they] will be able to pay victim restitution, child support, and taxes.”

That includes things like intensive probation, electronic monitoring, and community service. The only limit here is our creativity.

And our foundation is Scripture. When Zacchaeus admitted to Jesus that he had defrauded tax payers, he offered to pay restitution-which was in keeping with the Law.

Christians can lead the way. We can move beyond the mere “toughness” rhetoric that locks up Americans in expensive prison cells for reasons that are only tangentially related to public safety. Let’s lock people up that are a danger to society. Let’s not lock people up whom we are just mad at.

This commentary is part two of a four-part series.

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  • noelfitz

    This is a wonderful and truthful article. Congratulations to Mark and all in CE associated with giving in publicity.

    It is a disgrace that a Country that we love and respect has such a record in human rights violations. Along with China and Saudi Arabia the US has the death penalty, while civilized countries do not.

    It was hypocritical of George Bush to condemn the lack of civil rights in China, while the US has innocent people incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere and (as noted in the article) such a record in locking people up.

    It is shameful that more than 1% of the population are in prison in the US, adding to this disgrace is the ethnic make up of those incarcerated.

    The conditions in US prisons are often inhuman. What is the reason for locking people up, is it rehabilitation or punishment? In Ireland in prisons there are educational facilities, often on a one to one basis. Prisoners study from basic literacy to university degreees (The Open University). Many do courses in Anger Management and Alternatives to Violence. In their cells they have TVs, and CDs. Many study music (principally the guitar), painting and model building. They have gym and pool/snooker facilities. Many charitable groups (eg St Vincent de Paul Society and the Samaritans) visit prisons.

    There are methadone (phi) programs to wean prisoners off drugs. The aim is to provide a safe environment for prisoners and encourage them to become useful members of society on their release.

    It is also illogical to be pro-life and not being involved with prison reform and other social improvements,

    God bless,

  • trainwife1962

    Judge Judy once commented that the real problem in the inner city is that the public schools are old and decrepit, with a run-down gym and a leaky roof, while the reform school has an air-conditioned weight room with cable television. Prison is a better place to live than the streets, so kids commit crimes simply to better their life.

    In contrast, Sheriff Arpaio of Maricopa county Arizona made his county jail inmates live in tents without electricity, television or running water. These inmates have to chop rocks, wear striped suits, and eat bologna sandwiches three times per day, and not only did the crime rate go down, very few of the released inmates commited subsequent offenses.

    In short, part of the purpose of making prison such an unpleasant place is to deter crime. If prison is a place nobody in their right mind would want to be, they’re less likely to commit a crime, just as a fear of Hell provides an appropriate deterrent to sin. We speak of prisoners’ rights, but what about the rights of their victims?

    In 1992, and again in 1996, we saw many cars that had “Dare to Keep Kids off Drugs” stickers right beside stickers that said “Clinton/Gore” despite the fact that Bill Clinton openly admitted to having smoked pot “but didn’t inhale”, acted like his drug use was no big deal, showed little if any remorse, and the only reason he gave for not contiuing to use drugs was that he “didn’t like it”.

    After President Clinton was elected, drug use among teenagers rose significantly. If we want to see changes in society’s behavior, we need to stop sending such mixed messages to our children.

    I’m also curious as to how so many people seem to “know” that those who are locked up at Guantanamo are “innocent”, when we see the hole in the ground in downtown Manhattan that used to be the World Trade Center.

    I agree that it’s shameful that 1% of the population is incarcerated. It’s shameful that that many people are commiting crimes.

    If anybody should be blamed for the ethnic makeup of those in prision, it should be the Reverend Wright’s of this world, who brainwash minorities into thinking America has it out for them. These misinformed people then think that it’s okay to steal or kill, because society would do the same to them if it had the chance.

    We are not living in the days of King Herod, when people were imprisoned merely for being religious or political deviants. The U. S. Constitution expressley prohoibits incarceration of anyone without cause.

    Today, American Prisoners are offered the chance to study for undergraduate and graduate degrees, and even law degrees while they’re still in prison. Sing-Sing Prison in New York even offers Art Classes. Inmates at many prisons in the U. S. do have cable telvision.

    There again, prisons often offer better lives than these people have on the outside. Living in poor neighborhoods is a catalyst towards commiting crimes, but it’s not an excuse. General Colin Powell, the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U. S. Armed Forces grew up in the same poor neighborhoods as many of the young men in prison. He went back to his old neoighborhood to speak to some High School students about what they could be, and they did not treat him well.

    And to answer the question posed by Noelfitz as to whether prison is for punishment or rehabilitation, the answer is, both. We need to maintain order in a civilized society, and if crime doesn’t have a punishment attached, how exactly are we supposed to deter it? Crime is a public sin, and it needs public punishment.

    Remember the theif that was crucified beside Jesus? He said, “We desrve to die, for we are suffering the just punishment for our crimes. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

    Did Jesus correct this man? Not according to scripture. He spoke of being with the man in the next life, but made no mention of being excused from punishment in this life.

    In confession, we say to God, “I detest all of my sins, because of thy just punishments….”

    And what about the crosses we bear in this life to lessen our time in Purgatory? Prisons are called “Pennitentaries” because part of their purpose is pennitence for our sins.

    America is also one of the few countries in the world where a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Comparing the U. S. to Saudi Arabia simply because we have the death penalty is innacurate. In America, we normally use lethal injection, whereas in Saudi Arabia, decapitation is still very much in vogue, and beheadings take place almost weekly. And petty theft in the United States may be punishable by a fine or a few days in jail, while in Saudi Arabia, the same crime is normally punished by cutting off a person’s hands. In some cases, petty theft is also an executable offense over there.

    Also, the death penalty is something that’s decided on a state-by-state basis in the United States, and not every State has laws providing the death penalty.

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