Imprisoning a Million Nonviolent Offenders

Last year, for the first time in our nation's history, over one million people were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.Although politicians have made a lot of hay about locking up the "worst of the worst," over the past 20 years we've actually added more nonviolent offenders to our prisons than violent ones. Since 1978, the number of violent offenders being sent to prison every year has doubled, the number of nonviolent offenders has tripled, and the number of drug offenders has increased eight-fold.In other words, while many mandatory sentencing laws are passed on the specter of Jack the Ripper, our prisons are filling with members of the "gang that couldn't shoot straight."Some argue, of course, that crime is on the decline because we've locked up so many prisoners, violent and nonviolent alike. While no one can dispute the fact that prisons serve some crime-control purpose, it cannot be said that if some prisons are good, more prisons must be better.Between 1992 and 1997, for example, California added 270 prisoners per week to its prison system, while New York added a more modest 30 prisoners per week. If the "prisons cure crime" theory is to be believed, California should have mightily outshone New York from a crime-control standpoint during that period. Yet despite the fact that California was adding nine times as many people to its prison system every week as New York, New York experienced a percentage drop in homicides which was half again as great as the percentage drop in California's homicide rate.The growth in the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders has been so explosive that it's a little difficult for the average citizen to wrap his or her arms around the numbers. A few statistics help put it in perspective:* America now locks up more nonviolent offenders than the combined populations of Alaska and Wyoming.* The 1.2 million nonviolent prisoners we locked up last year is three times the number of all offenders imprisoned by the 12 countries that make up the European Union, even though those countries have a 100 million more citizens living in them than the US does.* The $24 billion spent to imprison those offenders is almost 50% more than the federal government spends on a welfare program that serves 8.5 million people.* In 1995, states around the country spent more building prisons than universities for the first time. That year, there was nearly a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff in funding between universities and prisons. In the mid-1990s, the budgets for prisons exceeded the budgets for universities in both California and New York for the first time.There must be a point at which we balance our zeal for punishment against the human and fiscal costs of such policies. Spending more to lock up nonviolent offenders than to educate our young people is the basis for a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy. Failing to distinguish between serious and non-serious offenders threatens to turn our system into one in which justice becomes trivialized on the one hand, and hard-hearted and mean-spirited on the other.Vincent Schiraldi, is the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a non-profit public policy organization based in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

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