Incarceration and decarceration.

In the 1970s crime sharply increased in the United States. In the 1980s there came an epidemic of “crack” cocaine use. Americans legislatures and courts responded by “getting tough on crime.” Sentences for all sorts of crimes were increased and about half the states adopted “three strikes and you’re out” laws that could put people in prison for a very long time for a series of comparatively minor crimes.[1]

In 1980, there were 320,000 people in local, county, state, and federal lock-ups. Today there are about 2.4 million in prisons. (About 40 percent of them are African-American.) As a result, while Americans represent only five percent of the world’s population, Americans represent twenty-five percent of the world’s imprisoned population. (See: “The Senator from San Quentin,” October 2014.)

In theory, the “War on Drugs” isn’t responsible for most of the prisoners. Only 17 percent of the prisoners are there for purely drug crimes.[2] However, the “War on Drugs” led to a “War for the Corners” in many American cities. The “War for the Corners” then had other violent effects. One came in the up-arming of many neighborhoods where the drug trade is carried out. A second came in multiplying personal feuds and quarrels. If you put those latter two together, violence and danger increased. If you step-to a man today, you’re likely to get more than a broken nose. Try explaining to a hospital that you walked into a door in the dark when they’re digging 9-mm rounds out of you.

At the same time, all sorts of violence increased to alarming levels from the 1970s to the 1990s. Drug-related violence hardly accounted for all of this. I don’t yet have an explanation for this spike in violence. However, half of the prison population is made up of burglars, armed robbers, rapists, and other violent or career criminals. Moreover, the majority (60 percent) of people released from prison are back inside within three years for parole violation or new crimes. This suggests that there are a lot of habitually violent people among the rest of us in America. (See: “Legacies of the Violent Decades,” January 2015.)

Prisoners cost a lot of money. The monthly average in California prisons is $2,600 per prisoner. The total cost for American taxpayers is $80 billion a year. Inevitably, the public has begun to demand a cut in the cost of government in this area as in other areas. States and the Federal government are beginning to respond.

People—me, for example–like to heap ridicule on Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and a one-time clown in the Republican presidential primary. However, Perry also got the state legislature to devote $241 million to paying for drug treatment alternatives to prison and expanded probation programs. The Texas prison population has decreased by three percent since 2010, while the crime rate has dropped by 18 percent. This suggests that it matters who you release or spare from prison. This is but one of a number of experiments in trying to reduce the size of the prison population. A bipartisan Smart Sentencing Act is making its way through Congress to cut the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by federal courts.

If someone wants to look for the dark cloud around this silver lining, they could consider a previous reform movement. Once upon a time, lots of mentally ill people were warehoused in awful state mental hospitals. Liberals pushed for out-patient care. Conservatives saw a way to cut spending. We got de-institutionalization and street-people living over heating grates.

[1] “Opening the prison door,” The Week, 24 April 2015, p. 11.

[2] Thus, a recent decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to release non-violent drug offenders in federal custody will reduce the prison population by 46,000 people or about 2 percent.

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