Saturday, March 1, 2008

As Another Bill Rots In Subcommittee, U.S. Remains The World's Foremost Jailer

Although the trend is far from new, the U.S. did pass a milestone recently in its overall incarceration rate, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States. More than 1 in 100 American adults is either in prison or in jail. This is the largest prison/jail population in the world. Even far more populous China is a distant second, the report says. We're talking both numbers and per capita, going away.

The report puts the most current figure for U.S. incarcerated at 2,319,258. Of those, 171,790 are enjoying austere lodging in my home state of Texas.

The growth of the orange jump-suit set has attracted the attention of certain lawmakers. But predictably, change is coming very slowly, and one of the pertinent bills in the Congress is -- you guessed it, mired in a subcommittee.

At the federal level, one lawmaker who is trying to turn back an irrational trend is U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas. She's the sponsor of H.R. 261, the proposed Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2007.

According to, here's a description of the bill, and its status:

Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2007 - Amends the federal criminal code to direct the Bureau of Prisons, pursuant to a good time policy, to release a prisoner who has served one half or more of his or her term of imprisonment if that prisoner: (1) has attained age 45; (2) has never been convicted of a crime of violence; and (3) has not engaged in any violation, involving violent conduct, of institutional disciplinary regulations.

Latest Major Action: 2/2/2007: Referred to House subcommittee. Status: Referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

Translation: It will be stuck there for quite a while. According to the Web site, it has no co-sponsors.

There are some other revealing statistics in the Pew report. About 1 in 9 black men aged 20 to 34 are in prison or jail, for just one example.

What happened? The report says that this is largely the result of tougher state and federal sentencing that began in the 1980s. Translation: The War on Drugs, and "Three Strikes, You're Out."

Jackson-Lee is fighting windmills for now, and only at the federal prison level at that. But this is a trend that cannot and will not continue much longer. The costs will see to that: The report says that in 20 years, state spending on corrections, adjusted for inflation, went up 127%; spending on higher education, 21%. State governments are paying nearly $50 billion a year to prop up this quasi-gulag. The federal government is paying more than $5 billion annually.

"Lock 'em up" has always played well with much of the electorate -- I will risk saying the more ignorant part of it -- but alternatives to prison must be explored, especially where the disastrous War on Drugs is concerned. The hoosegows are so full that I think it's time to refocus on offenders who have actually injured someone else, arbitrarily and directly, rather than some schmuck who gets caught with a user's amount of a controlled substance. We've done the hard-ass approach for a generation, and it has obviously run its course.

If you ever write to your representatives in Congress, it might be a good time to mention H.R. 261, since this problem is in the news.

And, I will leave you all with a link to a fine post on this subject that, among other things, also explores the disturbing trend of outsourcing incarceration to contractors. These companies operate "private" prisons that maximize profits through varied abuse, deprivation and frighteningly unsanitary conditions.

You'll find a lot more at The Existentialist Cowboy.

Be joyful that you are free -- if you more or less are.
Crossposted at Manifesto Joe.