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America: Land of the incarcerated

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: March 12, 2008 1:17 a.m.
Updated: May 13, 2008 5:02 a.m.
You might have missed the otherwise important story well buried on page C3 in the Feb. 29 Signal. America, having lost so much ground to international competitors in manufacturing, education, and strength of currency, has found a way to make it back to the top of the global heap.

A Pew Center On The States report cites that the United States has surpassed all other nations, becoming the world's No. 1 incarcerator of its citizens. "For the first time in U.S. history, more than one out of every 100 adults is in jail or in prison," the Associated Press reports. That's a lot of us Yankees behind bars.

As shocking as is the high body count, equally so is the high cost of driving the United States to the numero uno spot. America spent $49 billion on "corrections" last year; this up from only $11 million a short 20 years earlier.

Has your salary or property tax risen at this quick 450 percent rate?

Clearly, the fast-rising cost of becoming the world's top prison-state is outstripping America's ability to pay for the honor.

And sadly, amidst the prison bonds and general fund loads that prisons represent, we forget that taxes spent on prisons could have been spent on schools, freeways, parks or crime-reducing community services. It's as though we've sentenced our tax dollars themselves to life in prison, and we've thrown away the key. California will spend nearly $10 billion on incarceration in 2008. And yet we look around with dismay and wonder why so much of the Golden State is in decay.

California, unlike the Feds, can only spend what we obtain in taxes or bonds. And there's practical limits to how much we're willing to be, or can afford to be, taxed. That's why prudent and thoughtful priorities in public spending are so important. All taxes should be invested for the highest public return. There's no spare dollars to waste. And with $10 billion of our California tax dollars heading sadly to the pokey, we need to intelligently reflect just why exactly we're incarcerating so much of our taxes and so many of our people.

With imprisonment, as with so much else, California pretty much leads the country with over 190,000 of its men and women locked up. The U.S. overall has 2.3 million holed away. We incarcerate at over eight times the rate of Germany! What's driving these wild numbers? Are we just more violent than the rest of the civilized world? That can't be. ... We're one of the richest, reasonably well educated, and perhaps the most fervent Christian nation. But we send our neighbors off to our gulags faster than China, Russia, Cuba or even "Axis of Evil" Iran.

What's happening to us when the "Land of the Free" has become the "Land of the Incarcerated"?
California has reached a tipping point. Our prison population grew 600 percent from 1980 to today, but prison capacity couldn't keep up.

Our prisons are so overcrowded, so overwhelmed, that the state is facing a takeover by federal courts. And these courts may mandate releasing up to 40,000 prisoners to bring prison populations back in sync with constitutional capacity.

But is it actual raw crime that's driving our exploding prison population, or might it be ineffective corrections policy driven by political expediency?

For a glimpse at one root cause, one need only take a glance at Cameron Smyth's state Assembly Web site. Cameron didn't cause our prison overcrowding, but he reflects the social and political mechanisms at work. Rising jail populations are as much about politicians using fear for votes as they are about crime itself.

Fear, with its resulting clamor for "getting tough," sells better than sex. If it didn't, Heidi Klum would be featured on Cameron's Web site instead of a photo of two menacing "persons of color," hands clutching prison cell bars.

Cameron's site features "Keeping Californians Safe" - which throws fearful fuel on the fire of the potential federal takeover. Cameron wants his prevailingly white suburban semi-xenophobic constituency to know he's "tough on crime." Now, Cameron's linked site doesn't particularly address why our prisons are bursting with incarcerated Americans, but rather, just stokes fear for the 99 percent of us yet remaining on the outside.

Says Cameron's sponsored site: "Consider who could be amongst the up to 40,000 inmates that could be released by the courts. Our prisons are home to some of the most serious and dangerous criminals in the entire country. ...

"More than 85 percent of male inmates were convicted of a crime against a person, a serious or violent crime or a crime aggravated by a prior felony conviction. Just 14 percent were convicted for so-called 'non-violent' offenses."

The political ploy: Creating fear of the unknown. The operative word: "Could."

"Who could be amongst the up to 40,000 released?" That's a lot different than "Who will be." But fear, not facts, grab emotion-driven votes, and Cameron, like so many others, is just doing what he's learned from George Bush on down.

Would federal overseers release the worst and meanest on an unsuspecting California? Not likely, when they have such a rich trove in the 30 percent of California prisoners who are clogging the system with largely unnecessary 3 to 6 month stays for minor parole violations.

Meanwhile, the Pew report reveals real root causes of our prison woes without all the fear-based vote mongering:

"... Prison growth is not driven primarily by a parallel increase in crime, or a corresponding surge in the population at large. Rather, it flows principally from a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through popular 'three-strikes' measures and other sentencing enhancements, keeping them there longer. Overlaying that picture in some states has been the habitual use of prison stays to punish those who break rules governing their probation or parole. In California, for example, such violators make up a large proportion of prison admissions, churning in and out of badly overloaded facilities."

It's time to commit more thought, not dollars, to prisons. It's time for politicians to do hard time creating solutions to rising incarceration rates than opportunistically profiting from it.

Americans aren't eight times more criminal than Germans, nor are we seven times more criminal than Canadians. We are, however, apparently hostage to a lot more fear and a lot less logic than most any other country in the world.

For more info:

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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