Incarceration Nation

Here's some good news on the security front. Rates of crime in the United States have mostly been falling over the past generation, despite what chronic television news viewers believe. Indeed, some crimes of theft, such as pickpocketing, are more common in European cities than here.

On the other hand, rates of violent crime in America are among the highest in industrial countries, and the United States has the dubious distinction of leading the murder-per-capita pack by plenty. Indeed, Americans are about five times as likely to be murdered as residents of other rich countries.29

Availability of guns and a different cultural attitude toward their use may have something to do with the mayhem we're subjected to. So passionate are some about their guns (and so beholden are their politicians to the National Rifle Association), that we watched with a yawn while Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn attached a rider to a recent credit card oversight bill overturning nearly a century of law and allowing visitors to our national parks to carry loaded and concealed weapons, an idea considered crazy by almost everyone who works for the National Park Service, including Fran Mainella, former director of the NPS under George W. Bush.30

By contrast, the same Congress still feels no need to mandate any paid vacation time so Americans can actually visit their parks. (More on this in chapter 6.)

One answer to the murder rate, say conservatives, is the death penalty. On June 17, 2010, the state of Utah shocked the Western world when it executed a prisoner by firing squad. Texas, whose license plates might well read THE DEATH PENALTY STATE, has lethally injected 460 alleged murderers since 1982. The United States is alone among industrial countries in using the death penalty. But the results, as alluded to above, are less than stellar. Threat of death is no deterrent: Murder rates in America are actually highest in death penalty states.31

The decline in overall crime in the United States comes in part from a change in demographics: fewer Americans are in the age bracket most likely to commit crimes. But to be fair to the conservatives, it may also stem from the fact that we've locked so many people up.

“Never in the civilized world have so many been locked up for so little,” reports the Economist magazine. Home to about a quarter of all the world's prisoners, the United States now holds 2.3 million people behind bars, more than half of them nonviolent offenders. The “war on drugs” and a flurry of “three strikes and you're out” legislation have resulted in a 500 percent increase in the prison population in the last three decades.32 According to the Homeland Insecurity report: “Imprisonment has become a costly and ineffectual substitute for addressing substance abuse, poverty, mental illness, and educational failure. It also jeopardizes the life chances of millions of children who have a parent in prison.”33

The United States locks up people at twelve times the Japanese rate, nine times the German rate, and about seven times the European rate overall, with about 750 prisoners per 100,000 Americans.34 Free meals, free rent, free health care. It would be cheaper to put them all through college. Black males account for 44 percent of all U.S. prisoners, despite making up only 6 percent of our population. They wind up in prisons four times more often than black males did during the height of South Africa's apartheid regime.35

By contrast, many European countries have actually been shedding prisoners in recent years. France has fewer than it did in 1980, and in the Netherlands, the number of prisoners has fallen so fast, the Dutch had to close eight prisons and would have had to close more if they didn't import a few prisoners from Belgium. Forty percent of criminal trials in the Netherlands end up with community service rather than jail.36

The upside to the American “lock 'em up” approach is that some communities now survive on their prisons and spending for incarceration boosts the GDP significantly. When John spoke a few years ago at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas (population 35,000), he was surprised to find that the college employed nearly half the people in town, and Huntsville's eight (!) prisons — from minimum security to death row — employed most of the rest. The click of prison keys means the ka-ching of cash registers. In the upside-down world we inherit, more jails mean more GDP.

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