June 12, 2008

U.S. Leads World In Prison Population


By Warren Mass
jbs.org

The United States, with less than five percent of the world's population, has almost one fourth of the world's prisoners. One of 100 American adults is incarcerated.

Follow this link to the original source: "Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations'"

"Go to Jail. Go directly to Jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200."

Maybe it's part of our culture. Almost every American has been sent to the fanciful Monopoly jail at one time or another, but according to statistics from the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London, 2.3 million American criminals are currently incarcerated, more than any other nation. One in 100 Americans is behind bars.

The writer of the New York Times article reporting on this phenomenon sought to discover the reason why the United States has more people in prison than authoritarian China, which has four times the U.S. population, but only 1.6 million people in prison. (Of course, some would say that all of China is one vast prison!) Compared with the U.S. incarceration rate of 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population, Russia has 627, England, 151; Germany, 88; and Japan, only 63.

The reporter cited factors such as America's "higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net." In a nostalgic look at "America past," the reporter also quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, who, after visiting many American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in Democracy in America, "In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States."

Several points immediately come to mind. First, America's founders never intended for the United States to be governed as a democracy, though they accepted a democratic non-governmental social structure. James Madison, called the father of our Constitution, wrote that: "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

When Alexis de Tocqueville bestowed lavish praise on our system in Democracy in America, he found a land of freedom and prosperity that outshined his native France, burdened as it was by the after-effects of the notorious French Revolution — which was, itself, an example of democracy carried to its logical extremes.

During the time of Tocqueville's visit, America was still very much the republic created by our founders, and American society was in full bloom, reaping the benefits of growing in such fertile soil. As a nation that adhered closely to the rule of law, rather than, democratically, to the whims of the majority, justice was swift, certain, and (usually) fair. The proverbial lynch mob, in which the majority rules — with the only dissenter swinging from the end of a rope — is often used by instructors of the American system as an example of "democracy in action."

However, the Times writer’s statement, "Several specialists here and abroad" pointed to a surprising explanation for the high incarceration rate in the United States: "democracy." This has more than a little merit. The explanation for this statement is that many U.S. judges are elected and therefore "yield to populist demands for tough justice."

When justice is administered strictly by the rule of law, it tends to be dispassionate and punishment is more likely to fit the crime. When Thomas Jefferson returned from France, where he had served as minister from 1785-89, he asked George Washington why the delegates at the constitutional convention had agreed to the establishment of the Senate. "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" asked Washington. "To cool it," replied Jefferson. "Even so," said Washington, "we pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it."

The Senate performed its "cooling" function even better prior to the adoption in 1913 of the 17th amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators, thereby pushing the United States along the road to becoming a democracy.

As to why the U.S. prison population should increase after our nation became more democratic, while parliamentary democracies such as England and Sweden have much lower rates, much can be attributed to the decline in our society's moral standards in recent decades. The decline has made the republican form of government envisioned by our founders much more difficult to administer. As John Adams put it in 1789: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."

But isn't immoral social behavior also rampant in Europe? Why the higher U.S. incarceration rate?

For one thing, governments in such European "nanny states" tend to keep closer tabs on what their citizens are doing, preempting some crime at the expense of freedom. Another factor is the differences in the average length of prison sentences among nations. While the United States actually has lower rates of nonviolent crime, such as burglary, than Australia, Canada, or England, the United States tends to sentence criminals to longer sentences for such crimes than other nations, increasing the size of the prison population. Furthermore, according to James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale University cited in the Times article, the United States is the only modern nation that incarcerates people for minor property crimes such as passing bad checks.

I am far from being a "bleeding-heart liberal" who is soft on criminals, but it seems to me that in many cases where our system incarcerates non-violent or white-collar criminals (from the unemployed housewife passing a bad check at the supermarket, to fathers who owe child support, to Martha Stewart), it would benefit the perpetrator, the victim, and society if the convict were ordered to engage in productive work for a fair wage and then required to pay monetary restitution.

While it may make us feel better, in certain cases, to lock up the criminal and "throw the key away," encouraging that mindset may come back to haunt peaceful, previously law-abiding citizens who run afoul of increasingly intrusive laws. If the neighborhood informant mistakes you for a member of al-Qaeda, you may hope that our nation's legal system respects the Bill of Rights while safeguarding our "homeland security."

Yet another point to consider: Our nation's prisons have become home in recent years for collateral casualties of our "War on Drugs" and our "War on Illegal Immigration," such as former Immigration and Naturalization Service agent Joseph Occhipinti (who was set up on specious civil rights charges and sentenced to 37 months in a maximum security federal prison) and former Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean (who were sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively, in prison for shooting a known drug smuggler who resisted arrest and fled to the Mexican border.)

Conservatives who became advocates of "law and order" in response to the growing rate of crime in our nation's cities in recent decades may wish to reevaluate their positions, as respect for the rule of law (the hallmark of a republic) has diminished, and the demand for order (which can exist in a dictatorship more easily than in a free state) has increased.

Americans must not make the same mistake that the German people did in the 1930s. Filled with fear of the breakdown of their society and culture, they succumbed to the rantings of Nazi Party leaders that Germany was threatened by communist anarchists and saboteurs, as was "proved" conclusively by the February 27, 1933, burning of Germany's Reichstag (parliament) Building. Hitler's "Enabling Act" followed. The decree announced that, in light of the terrorist attack on the Reichstag, "restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications [sound familiar?]; warrants for house searches; orders for confiscation as well as restrictions on property, are permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”

Whether we are talking about a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on illegal immigration, or a war on terrorism, the solution will never be found in trampling on rights, granting more surveillance powers to government, or indiscriminately locking up all criminals for long prison terms, regardless of the severity of their offenses. (What? Ten years for ripping the tag off one's mattress!)

The proper balance between law and order and individual freedom can only be achieved if both government officials and citizens submit to the rule of law. But the law must be written intelligently, limited to areas that are properly the concern of government (which excludes telling parents how to raise their children, for example), and enforced uniformly and dispassionately.

The second part of the formula for individual freedom in a peaceful and secure society was alluded to by John Adams. America must once again become a nation of moral and religious people. It is far better to have "a conversion experience" outside of prison than inside one!

Or, as the founder of a nationwide membership society dedicated to preserving our freedom once summed up the formula for freedom: "Less Government, More Responsibility, and — With God's Help — a Better World."

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