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Sunday, June 22, 2014


In 2014, for the first time in years, the American prison population began to decline.  That's the good news; the bad news is that America still incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.  It's hard to get one's head around just how draconian the US prison system is: America makes up just five percent of the world's population, but has twenty five percent of the world's prisoners.  With a total prison population of around two to three million people (plus millions more on probation), we jail more people than China and Russia. Given these awful numbers, how can we honestly call ourselves the land of the free?
How did America come to such a shameful state of affairs?  The first part began in the early 1970's when then president Richard Nixon began a "war on crime", combined with a "war on drugs", both of which were really responses to the tumult the country went through in the 60's, from violent anti war protests to hippies smoking pot,  to many middle Americans the country was out of control, and that a crack down on scofflaws was needed.  Things stepped up in the 1980's when crack cocaine began to be sold in inner cities and president Ronald Reagan responded by signing the Anti Drug Abuse Act in 1986, when pushed for minimum mandatory sentences.
Another turning point came in the 1988 presidential election: at first, Vice President George Bush was running behind Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, but then Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater discovered that while he was governor, Dukakis had furloughed a man named Willie Horton, who went on to rape and murder a woman.  Pouncing on this story, Atwater whipped up a fear campaign that prominently featured the black Horton's mug shot in TV ads and mailers.

"By the time we're finished,  they're going to wonder whether
Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate."-Lee Atwater

The campaign not only worked for Bush, it lead the way for conservatives in the 1990's.  For years Republicans had benefited from scaring the American public about the Communist menace, saying that they were the ones strong enough to stand up to the reds.  But with the collapse of Soviet Russia and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party was without an enemy.  The Horton campaign gave them a new one: crime, particularly crimes committed by non white people.  Forgetting that violent crime was at its highest rate in 1984 when Reagan, a Republican, was president, they latched onto this new issue.  Sadly, the Democrats, not wanting to appear soft on crime, went along with this trend; in one of the more shameful moments of presidential campaign history, then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton halted to his race for the presidency to return to Arkansas to sign the death warrant of a death row criminal.

Then in 1993, the horrific kidnapping and killing of a twelve year old girl in California by Richard Davis made national headlines, leading the voters of that state to  pass  the "Three Strikes Your Out" amendment , which mandated a life sentence for a criminal convicted of a third felony.  Lost in the anger and fear over the Davis case was the fact that the law would apply to non violent felons, like  drug addicts.  (In an interesting bit of irony, the father of the murder victim actually came out against the amendment's passage, to no avail).  The passage of that amendment lead to many similar laws being passed in other states, leading to an inevitable increase in the prison population.

Another reason for the increase in prisoners in the US is the terrible trend of states turning to private prisons that are run for profit to incarcerate prisoners.  Beginning in the 1980's, companies like the Correction Corporation of America have profited from more people being imprisoned, and, like all corporations in America, they have lobbied congress to protect their interests, throwing their weight and money behind politicians who promise to get tough on crime, thereby increasing the number of "customers" in their jails. It's a vicious cycle, one that has been given the frightening moniker of  "the prison industrial complex".

As I said at the top of the post there is a trend to slowly but surely reduce prison populations in this country.  I would love to say that this is just because of common sense and compassion for non violent drug offenders, but actually, the reason is simple economics.  After the disastrous economic crash of 2008, many states were strapped for cash, which resulted in them taking a long hard look at their budgets and realizing that doing things like putting non violent drug addicts into rehab instead of jail would save money.   And so, this country's disastrous turn towards becoming the world's number one jailor appears to be turning, unfortunately it took the worst recession since the great depression to make that turn.

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