21 May 2008

National Disgrace #1: Massive Incarceration

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 12, 2008

The biggest issue facing the United States is not confiscatory tax rates, looming social security-Medicare insolvency, global warming, or exiting Iraq. It’s the ocean of people that our government incarcerates. A major part of the problem is drug prohibition which is producing a torrent of prisoners.

According to the Adam Liptak of the New York Times, roughly 1 in 100 adults in this country are locked up (about 2.3 million people). For example, if you went to a school that had 1,000 people in it, 10 would be imprisoned at any one time and far more would be imprisoned sometime during their lifetime. In comparison to our international brethren, the United States clearly loves locking its people in cages. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population but about 25% of its prisoners. We have 700,000 more people imprisoned than China despite its having four times more people. We incarcerate people at roughly 5 times the rate of Great Britain, 8 ½ times the rate of Germany, and 12 times the rate of Japan. In fact, the U.S. imprisons people nearly 6 times more often than do other nations.

This is only in part due to a greater rate of crimes with victims. While the U.S. does have a higher murder rate than many nations (about four times the rate of Western Europe), it has lower rates of non-violent crimes with victims. For example, it has a lower burglary and robbery rate than Australia, Canada, and England. In addition, the explosion in incarceration has occurred in part over the last thirty years during which time violent crime has declined. The increase is in part due to the longer sentences that are given to American prisoners. For example, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project notes that burglars get sentences that are more than twice as long as some of our peers (16 months in the U.S. versus 7 months in England and 5 months in Canada).

Among minorities, the U.S. criminal justice system is like an occupying military force. At any one time, it incarcerates 1 in 9 black men and 1 in 36 Hispanic men, and a much higher rate over their lifetime. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 3% of all Americans in 2005 (7 million people out of 230 million adults) were under the control of the criminal justice system in that they were incarcerated or on probation or parole.

One of driving forces behind this national lockdown is drug prohibition. Today there are almost 500,000 people incarcerated for drug crimes. These sentences are also harsh. Drug offenders average sentences of almost 7 years. The sentences are lengthier than that given out for assault (3.7 years) and larceny (2.6 years).

The massive drug crackdown is also a recent phenomenon. As recent as 1975, the incarceration rate was 15% of what it is today (in per capita terms). Even as late as 1980, there were only 40,000 people incarcerated for drugs.

In terms of arrests, in 2006, there were 1.89 million drug arrests (compared to 581,000 in 1980). More than 80% were for mere possession. Marijuana is worthy of special attention. More than 40% of the 1.89 million drug arrests were for marijuana possession. In 2006, there were 829,000 marijuana arrests and roughly 90% of those were for mere possession. Those arrested are simply unlucky given that nearly 80 million Americans have used marijuana and 20 million have done so in the last year. Now there are a number of reasons to legalize marijuana. One is that reputable sources like the prestigious European medical journal The Lancet has stated that it is reasonable to judge it less of a threat than alcohol or tobacco. Second, it endangers no one beside the user. One recent set of academics (Movig et al. in Accident Analysis and Prevention) found no increased risk for road trauma for drivers exposed to cannabis. Even if one doesn’t believe this, driving while on marijuana can be prosecuted without prohibiting marijuana in the same way we prosecute drunk drivers without prohibiting alcohol. Protecting citizens against themselves is about as American as locking up political prisoners or having an official state church.

In addition, the police state that supports the national lockdown is prohibitively expensive. For example, in the state of New York, the average working couple pays $3,040 in taxes to support the criminal justice system. This includes police protection, judicial and legal costs, and corrections. Here I am assuming that only one in two residents pays more taxes than they get in benefits and this includes children.

Such a police state includes an army of people to lock up and oversee locked up Americans. In 2005, there were 1.13 million people on police payrolls and 755,000 people on correction payrolls. Together they cost $7.5 billion. This massive number of people and dollars is troublesome for two reasons. First, it creates entrenched organizations that have an incentive to maintain the national lockdown as a way of ensuring job security and union revenue. This is similar to the way in which teachers’ unions fight tooth and nail to keep the spigot open and flooding the public schools with money.

Second, with dropping rates of violent and non-violent crimes with victims, police have to justify their salaries. One concern is that they will spend their time targeting activities like drugs, prostitution, speeding, and seatbelt use. A related concern is that because these are consensual activities, they often occur in people’s houses or other private property. As a result, the police will trample on civil liberties in order to get at them. The recent history of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against search and seizure shows that this is not an idle threat.

The general point is that locking up so many people is troublesome. The costs of doing so for victimless crimes like drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc. take the form of lives irreparably damaged, liberty lost, and money spent. Unless there is clear evidence that the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs, the prudent thing to do is to leave people alone. When this country places 3% of its population under the direct control of the criminal justice system, it is no longer the land of the free. And when a country so fears its citizens that it locks them up in droves, it is no longer the land of the brave.


The Objectivist said...

Note that there is an unncessary explosion in the number of things that are criminalized and the complexity of the criminal code.

The money laws enforced against Spitzer are one example. In that context, transfers which attempt to hide the amounts that are transferred from oversight are criminalized despite the fact that the transfers are under $10,000 and that this is distinct from tax issues.

The other examples are the many criminal laws against "deadbeat dads" despite the fact that this should be folded into the civil law and the reported fact that there is no evidence of a problem when it comes to middle class fathers.

The Objectivist said...

There is a pattern of reports that the police are increasingly likely not to respect anyone's rights.

Vast numbers of police investigate people for drunk driving (with .08 anyone can be convicted), seatbelt laws, ridiculously low speed limits, and many other silly laws.

To be fair this is not just the fact that there are just way too many people on police payrolls.

It is also due to the legislators who seek to micromanage our lives and create the legal framework for this constant monitoring.

In addition, the police's and court's disregard for people can be seen in their habit of searching cars and people with no evidence and for non-crimes (e.g., open container), use no-knock raids on anonymous complaints, use way too much force, or otherwise infringe on citizens' rights.

This has resulted from the fact that police increasingly have an entitlement mentality that is likely related to the constant flow of police acting as gang members. See, e.g., recent violence in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Brooklyn.

This is also result from the often repeated myth that law enforcement is a dangerous job. It's not. It's less dangerous than being a farmer, truck driver, or pilot.

The Constructivist said...

For a sadly-not-that-dated more leftist critique of the U.S. prison system, see The Prison Issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor that I edited back in 2000.