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Land of the Free? America Has 25 Percent of the World’s Prisoners

America criminalizes acts that other countries view as civil violations.
 
 
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File photo of the East Block of San Quentin Prison, referred to as Death Row because it houses condemned inmates

 

The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners. In large part, that’s the result of the “war on drugs” and long mandatory minimum sentences, but it also reflects America’s tendency to criminalize acts that other countries view as civil violations.

In 2010,  The Economist highlighted a case in which four Americans were arrested for importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than in cardboard boxes. That violated a Honduran law which that country no longer enforces, but because it’s still on the books there its enforced here. “The lobstermen had no idea they were breaking the law. Yet three of them got eight years apiece.” When the article was published 10 years later, two of them were still behind bars.

A UN  report noted that Alabama officials had arrested dozens of people who were too poor to repair septic systems that violated state health laws. In one case, authorities took steps to arrest a 27-year-old single mother living in a mobile home with her autistic child for the same “crime.” Replacing the system would have cost more than her $12,000 annual income, according to the report.

As The Economist put it:

America imprisons people for technical violations of immigration laws, environmental standards and arcane business rules. So many federal rules carry criminal penalties that experts struggle to count them. Many are incomprehensible. Few are ever repealed, though the Supreme Court… pared back a law against depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”, which prosecutors loved because they could use it against almost anyone. Still, they have plenty of other weapons. By counting each e-mail sent by a white-collar wrongdoer as a separate case of wire fraud, prosecutors can threaten him with a gargantuan sentence unless he confesses, or informs on his boss. The potential for injustice is obvious.

About 10 percent of America’s prisoners are housed in the federal corrections system.  Last week, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General released its  annual review of DOJ operations. And couched in typically cautious bureaucratic language, the report details a growing crisis within the federal prison system that threatens to undermine the DOJ’s other vital functions, including the enforcement of civil rights legislation, counter-terrorism and crime-fighting.

According to the report:

The Department of Justice (Department) is facing two interrelated crises in the federal prison system. The first is the continually increasing cost of incarceration, which, due to the current budget environment, is already having an impact on the Department’s other law enforcement priorities. The second is the safety and security of the federal prison system, which has been overcrowded for years and, absent significant action, will face even greater overcrowding in the years ahead.

The report notes that Washington’s push for austerity is aggravating the problem. The federal prison population has grown by almost 40 percent since 2001, but the budget for the Bureau of Prisons — after rising by about a third between 2001 and 2011 — has fallen by nearly 12 percent since then. And costs for services like pre-trial detentions have more than doubled over the past 12 years. According to the White House budget, the cost of incarcerating federal prisoners is expected to continue to grow, and the Inspector General notes that there’s “no evidence that the cost curve will be broken anytime soon.”

Some of that cost growth is the result of an aging prison population. According to the report, in just the past three years, the number of inmates over the age of 65 has grown by almost a third, while the population under 30 fell by 12 percent. “Elderly inmates are roughly two to three times more expensive to incarcerate than their younger counterparts,” according to the review.

 
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