Two Million Behind Bars, Just in Time for Valentine's Day

By February 15, America's prison population will have reached two million for the first time in history. The U.S. now has the world's highest incarceration rate, and the most prisoners of any nation on Earth. Despite having only 5 percent of the world's population, 25 percent of the world's 8 million prisoners are stuck behind our bars.These disturbing statistics come courtesy of a new report, "The Punishing Decade," released by the Justice Policy Institute, a non-profit research organization. The report analyzed the most up-to-date Justice Department statistics and trends, and concluded that in the 1990s, despite dramatic drops in crime rates, "far more prisoners were added to America's prisons and jails than in any decade in recorded history."In addition to the skyrocketing numbers of inmates, the report found that nearly two-thirds of those incarcerated are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. These nonviolent inmates are often victims of "three strikes" laws or mandatory sentences intended to keep violent, career criminals off the streets. According to JPI Director Vincent Schiraldi, "prison expansion is sold on the specter of Jack the Ripper, but we are increasingly locking up the Three Stooges."Beside the human toll, the monetary cost of our soaring prison population is staggering. About $41 billion will be spent incarcerating people in 2000 -- more than double the entire federal welfare budget. Many states now spend more money on prisons than on higher education. In New York, the state's prison budget grew by $761 million in the last decade, while its budget for higher education dropped by $615 million.In a time when the economy is good, unemployment is low and crime rates are dropping, why are we putting more people behind bars? Policy analyst Jason Ziedenberg of the JPI puts the blame squarely on the prison industry itself, which has grown astronomically in the last decade."Whatever the social problem this country has had to deal with, be it drug addiction, poverty or mental illness, our solution has been to build another prison," Ziedenberg explained. "We need to draw a line in the sand and say, two million is too many, and find humane and less costly solutions than prison to solve this nation's social ills."Even some elements of the prison industry think our incarceration rates have gone overboard, but they shift the blame to policymakers in Washington."We don't disagree that we are incarcerating too many people," the American Correctional Association's spokesman Jim Turpin told "If you call for 100,000 new police on the streets [as President Clinton did in 1992], what are they to do but arrest people?""People say 2 million is too much," Turpin continued, "but will anybody in the debate on the 2000 crime bill stand up and say that?"Will they? Probably not. Sensational media coverage of violent crime continues to feed the public clamor for tougher laws and harsher sentences. As Vincent Schiraldi wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, "When politicians conduct focus groups of likely voters, they are fed back fears of crime. They then begin legislating and talking about crime, churning up reporters to again cover crime, whether crime is on the increase or not. And the band plays on."The biggest victims of this political myopia are young men of color. Although African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, the study points out that half of the 1.2 million state and federal prisoners are African American. One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 were under some form of criminal justice control (in prison, jail, parole or probation) in 1995, and 13 percent of the black adult male population has lost the right to vote due to their involvement in the criminal justice system."Halfway through black history month, our prisons and jails represent the sad reality that one out of three young African American males are under some form of criminal justice control," said Ziedenberg. "The nation must find alternatives to incarceration to solve America's pressing social problems."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.