An amazing 3.2% of the U.S. population is in the
criminal justice system. (Photo: Andrew Bardwell)
Last year, a report (PDF) from the Pew Center on the States hit the headlines with the disturbing information that one in 100 Americans is behind bars. Well, the information just keeps getting worse. A new report (PDF) from the same outfit tells us that when probation and parole are included in the equation, an astonishing one in 31 of us are under the thumb of the criminal justice system. Direct government control over the lives of over 3% of the population comes at enormous cost in money and liberty, with little in the way of clear benefits.
A stunning 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent, is under some form of correctional control."
The report, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (PDF), tells us that the one in 100 people revealed last year to be in jail or in prison are joined by a huge number of Americans under criminal justice supervision in the community.
[T]he number of people on probation or parole has skyrocketed to more than 5 million, up from 1.6 million just 25 years ago. This means that 1 in 45 adults in the United States is now under criminal justice supervision in the community, and that combined with those in prison and jail, a stunning 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent, is under some form of correctional control.
The numbers are even worse when you break the figures down. That one in 31 becomes one in 18 when you talk about men alone, and one in 11 when discussing black Americans.
Much of the blame for the soaring incarceration rate can be laid at the feet of mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes, tough-on-crime campaigns. Kentucky, for example, actually switched from three strikes to two strikes. The Bluegrass state also turned several misdemeanors into felonies, with longer prison sentences to go with them. The result has been that the state's prison population grew nearly 250% from 1987 to 2007, with a surge of 50% in just the last eight years. Kentucky's violent crime rate did decline by 13% during that time -- but the national rate dropped by 23%.
That's not a lot of bang for the buck -- a lot of bucks, as it turns out. Nationally, keeping a prisoner behind bars costs an average of $79 per inmate per day. By contrast, community supervision costs from $3.42 per day for probationers to $7.47 per day for parolees. You certainly don't want all offenders wandering the streets, but not all offenders are murderers and rapists.
In fact, points out Pew, beyond a core of violent and frequent offenders, there are diminishing returns to locking people up. Mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws have scooped up growing ranks of less-dangerous and less prolific criminals. Some criminals -- drug dealers for instance -- are rapidly replaced when they're removed from circulation, for no net gain. The large numbers of low-risk offenders are more easily, cheaply and effectively dealt with if allowed to continue living in their communities, working and paying restitution under supervision.
Which raises another issue. Pew spends a lot of ink pushing for community supervision as a preferable alternative to incarceration. Sure, shifting from prisons to probation would save money, but it would still leave vast numbers of people under state supervision. Should over 3% of the population really be directly under the government's thumb, whether or not they're behind bars?
An insight into the real problem comes in a quote included in the report from David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union. Keene notes:
The fact that so many Americans, including hundreds of thousands who are a threat to no one, are incarcerated means that something is wrong with our criminal justice system and the way we deal with both dangerous criminals and those whose behavior we simply don’t like.
The fact is, we've created too many criminals, by criminalizing too much activity that government officials don't like, but which doesn't actually do any damage to people or property. In Arizona, for example, nearly one in five prisoners is behind bars for a drug offense. The figure is identical for California, which is under court order to reduce its prison population. Nationally, drug offenses constitute 13% of all arrests.
Drug offenders tend to be punished disproportionately for their nonviolent activities. In Arizona, drug offenders get the same average sentence as arsonists, and serve longer stretches than criminals convicted of assault.
Throw in prostitution arrests, gamblers, violations of arcane firearms laws and other victimless activities, and you're talking about a large chunk of the correctional population.
Should these people be penalized at all?
Pew is right that mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and other tough-on-crime posturing have brought an unacceptably large chunk of the population into the criminal justice system. And they have done so at enormous cost with little in the way of benefit that couldn't be achieved more cheaply and effectively through less draconian approaches.
But a big part of the problem is this country's insistence on criminalizing so much behavior that shouldn't draw the government's attention at all.
True libertarians maintain an unwavering support for property rights and the notion that one may act in any manner suitable to his tastes until it violates the property rights of others. Once you believe that no one has the moral authority to initiate aggression and violence against innocent, nonviolent people, you begin to understand why the coercive state is illegitimate.