Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Behind Bars in America

In February 2008, the Pew Center on the States, a part of the Pew Charitable Trusts, published a study titled, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”. The report pulls together data from all of the States regarding the prison populations so that they will have accurate data from which they can make sound policy.

To highlight the fact that there is a problem which is largely being unaddressed, at the end of the study they compare the numbers of people incarcerated in the United States with 36 other countries in the world. The 36 countries chosen are all European countries with the largest inmate populations (years vary).

For a country which purports to uphold the ideals of freedom and democracy, the United States should be embarrassed by what these figures show. The next thing is to figure out why we are imprisoning more than one in every 100 adults so that the appropriate changes can be made to laws, policies, and practices to turn this around.

To visualize the stark reality of the situation, we can first look at the pure numbers of people in jail.

In fact, if you total up the prison populations of all 36 countries and compare that total number to the number of people held in U.S. prisons, the United States has more people in prison than all of the other countries combined.

Compare this with the total populations of these countries:

Finally, if you take a look at the percentage of the populations of these countries that are in prison, the United States still comes out way ahead. The following graph shows, in other words, how many people out of 100,000 residents (including children) are locked up in jail.

This study is not comparing the United States to countries with repressive regimes, but with Western Countries with which we should compare favorably, in that we supposedly share the same values.

What these pretty graphs do not show is the human toll suffered by families whose lives are being affected by a system which creates these huge numbers of criminals. Nor do they show the deteriorating effect on American culture.

We see here the effect. Our society must do a better job of understanding the causes, and take immediate steps to start correcting this situation.

1 comment:

Winter said...

According to a 2004 report by The Sentencing Project, a policy research group, as of 2003, "nearly three-fourths (72.1%) of federal
prisoners are serving time for a non-violent offense and have no history of violence."
But the travesty is not just in the numbers of citizens being held, but in the injustices they promulgate. Consider that, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 49% of prisoners are African-American, while only consisting of 13% of the American population. A black man has almost a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison at some time in his life, compared to a 1 in 25 chance for a white male. And while there are sociological effects in play, part of it is simply bias in the justice system. In one study in Florida, blacks and hispanics made up 13% of the driving population but 70% of the traffic stops.
These disparities are very evident in drug offenses. African-Americans have a 20% greater chance of being sentenced to prison for a drug-related arrest than whites. Hispanics have a 40% greater chance.
The trouble is, very few people with the power to make changes -- our elected legislators -- are motivated to make the necessary changes.

[end rant]