Prisoners Dilemma

Prisoners Dilemma

The Editors America Magazine

The evidence is piling up that too many Americans are wasting away in prison. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, recently concluded in a major two-year study that the United States “has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by the social benefits.” Other groups, like Human Rights Watch, the Brennan Center for Corrections, Corrections Today and the University of Chicago Crime Lab, have also raised their voices. Pope Francis, in his address to the International Criminal Law Association on May 30, called for major reforms of criminal justice systems.

Here are some basic statistics. Having quadrupled in the past four decades, the prison population in the United States today is 2.2 million, or about one of every 100 adults. This rate far exceeds that of other Western democracies. Maintenance for each prisoner costs taxpayers $30,000 a year. Over half of inmates are locked up for nonviolent offenses. According to “Nation Behind Bars,” a recent report by Human Rights Watch, nearly one-third of those serving life sentences do not have the possibility of parole, and more than 40 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions are for immigration offenses. For every 100,000 Americans in each of the following groups, according to the report, there are 478 white males, 3,023 black males, 51 white females and 129 black females in prison.

Too often the system fails to treat prisoners as human beings; each person has a right to fair trial and punishment and equal protection under the law. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke for “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” The forgotten men and women of today are the 2.2 million in prison, committed by a public that too often bases its understanding of prison life on films and television and has been fed tabloid headlines about these “monsters” from the moment of their arrests through their trials. The surge in imprisonment began in the late 1960s with President Richard M. Nixon’s campaign for “law and order.” The accusation of being “soft on crime” replaced the “soft on Communism” of the 1950s and has continued to influence American politics.

Many people have presumed that a correlation between crowded prisons and a reduced crime rate points to a significant cause-and-effect relationship, but recent research paints a more complex picture, according to a report this year from the National Research Council. The report concludes that the “magnitude of the reduction” of crime due to imprisonment is “highly uncertain” and “unlikely to have been large.”

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