IN THE LAST 25 years, the United States has responded to citizens' legitimate fears of murder, muggings and addiction with mindless wars on crime and drugs. Pandering politicians, a sensationalist media and a public content only with tough-guy approaches have compounded the problem. As a result, our prisons are bulging with young, poor blacks and Latinos, nonviolent addicts, alcoholics, petty thieves and the mentally ill. Some are serving life sentences for buying a macadamia nut disguised as a $5 rock of cocaine from an undercover cop.
"We've been engaged in a prison buildup that's a uniquely 20th and 21st century American phenomenon, one without parallel elsewhere in the world," says professor Todd Clear, head of doctoral studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
The number of prisons in the nation has grown quickly, and California is representative. In 1980, there were 12 prisons in the state. Today, there are 33.
Between 1982 and 2001, arrests in the United States increased by 13%, yet the number of inmates in federal and state prisons surged 228%. The total number of Americans in prison, jail, on probation or on parole soared from 400,000 in 1970 to 1.8 million in 1980 and to 6.7 million in 2002. About 13 million Americans have served time for a felony conviction. Although the U.S. contains 4% of the world's population, it houses one-quarter of all the imprisoned people on Earth.
Incarceration costs have correspondingly exploded. Twenty years ago, the nation annually spent $36 billion on police, courts and incarceration. Today, it's $167 billion.
It was during the late 1960s and the 1970s that government -- state and federal -- concluded that the only way to deal with rising crime and addiction was more cops and prisons and far tougher punishment. In the 1980s and '90s, thousands of laws were passed to put this approach into practice. Drug offenses carried penalties as severe as those for violent crimes.
Several factors accounted for the turn to punishment. Then-available social science data showed that many prison rehab programs weren't working. As a result, prison officials abandoned most of them. Underpinning and reinforcing this development was the belief that people behaved criminally because they lacked moral scruples. A big stick and longer prison terms were therefore the best guarantors of social control -- and petty criminals, crack-heads and junkies should be treated no differently than rapists, robbers and murderers. California lawmakers were so taken with this view of human nature that, in 1977, they changed the state's penal code to read that the purpose of imprisonment was not rehabilitation but punishment.
Paralleling the philosophical shift was the emergence of the criminal justice industry as a political player. Its 2.3 million members include highway patrol officers, sheriffs and deputies, district attorneys and prison and jail guards (747,000). Add law enforcement's natural allies -- prison construction firms, police equipment manufacturers, the National Rifle Assn. and victims' rights groups -- and you have a lobbying force capable of advancing legislation that maximizes sentencing and incarceration.
With more criminals serving longer sentences, the crime rate has dramatically dropped. Experts say increased incarceration explains 15% to 25% of the decline. But it's only part of the story. Texas' prison population rose by 168% from 1992 to 2001, but the state's violent crime rate fell by just 14%. Conversely, New York's prison population jumped 9%, but its violent crime rate fell by 52%, which suggests other factors have played a larger role in crime reduction, such as a stronger national economy, the end of the crack cocaine wars, more street cops, computerized crime-tracking strategies and a smaller population in the prime crime-prone ages of 18 to 34.
Nevertheless, violent crime remains rampant in many of the United States' poorest neighborhoods, where young men and women are sucked into an intergenerational cycle of crime, imprisonment, release and reimprisonment. About 40% of U.S. prisoners are black. If incarceration trends continue, 1 in 3 black males born today will do time in state prison. About 7 million children have a parent somewhere in the corrections system, and they are five times more likely to be incarcerated than kids whose parents have not been imprisoned.
The economic costs of a criminal justice system that emphasizes punishment and incarceration at the expense of rehabilitation and the potential for recovery are unsustainable. Nowhere is this more evident than in California, whose corrections system spends $7.3 billion annually and "has little accountability, no uniformity [or] transparency ... too much political interference, too much union control and too little management courage," according to a report commissioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In California and in other states, governors are turning away from their exclusive reliance on incarceration and reintroducing rehabilitation as a less costly way to deal with some criminals. A return to a criminal justice policy that balances punishment and rehab could save billions of dollars and reclaim hundreds of thousands of lives.
Two things must happen to reform the U.S. corrections system. Law enforcement leaders need to abandon their fiefdoms and work with reform-minded corrections officials such as Rod Hickman, head of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, to develop rehab programs to help prisoners reenter society successfully. And the public needs to understand that criminal behavior is not simply caused by a failure of moral willpower, but results from a constellation of factors, including dysfunctional schools, poor healthcare, single-parent households and the lack of economic opportunity.