Reforming America’s Prison System: The Time Has Come

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) in his recent article calling for a major reform of America’s prisons in Parade Magazine brought some very disturbing, eye opening, statistics about America’s prison system to light. In summary this is some of what he found:

-Since 1984, America’s prison population has quadrupled from 580,000 to 2.3 million

-Though the U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s reported prisoners

-Local, state, and federal spending on corrections costs the U.S. taxpayer about $68 billion annually* (California spent nearly $10 million on corrections last year by itself!)

-16% (350,000) adults in prison or jail are mentally ill

-3/4 of drug offenders in state prisons are non-violent offenders or in prison solely for drug offenses

-47.5% of all drug arrests in the U.S. were fore marijuana offenses

-Despite insignificant statistical differences regarding drug use among races, Blacks (accounting for 12% of the U.S. population) account for 37% of all drug arrests, 59% of which are convicted and account for 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison

Perhaps for the “tough on crime” types, this is all good news but for anyone else who thinks critically of these statistics, I would expect that most would be concerned if not horrified. In response to these statistics, Sen. Webb makes the following observation:

“With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different–and vastly counterproductive.”

For regular consumers of the evening news, it may seem that the first possibility could be true. Without fail, the evening news reports stories of violence, vandalism, kidnapping, rape, child molestation, and murder both locally and nationally. There is also no shortage of true crime programs** detailing the most heinous crimes one could imagine being committed against other human beings; it’s all very disturbing. Our jails and prisons surely must be overflowing from these creeps!

One would think that roving bands of murderous thugs are on every street in America, yet we each almost always make it to and from work, to and from running errands and eating out unmolested. Our odds of being killed in an auto accident*** are many times greater than being victim to this roving band of murderous thugs. How can this be? In most auto accidents, the victim may try to find an accident attorney to seek legal advice or take legal action.

While we should each be vigilant and aware of our surroundings and always use common sense, the perception that our prisoners are overflowing with mostly violent criminals just isn’t true. Figure 1 shows the U.S. prison population under the purview of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The BOP population accounts for 202,493 of America’s 2.3 million prisoners.

Figure 1

Source: Bureau of Prisons as of February 2009

Source: Bureau of Prisons as of February 2009

As is evident from Figure 1, our prisons are mostly housing drug offenders; the most violent criminals “homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping” + “sex crimes” (assuming every “sex crime” is a violent act which is not a safe assumption) accounts for only 6.4% of the BOP’s population. If we want to assume that every weapons, explosives, and arson inmate is a violent offender (again, not at all a safe assumption) with 15% and throw in national security offenses at .1%****, the maximum violent criminal population stands at roughly 21.5% (excluding other violent offenders who may be hidden in the remaining categories). Many in these kinds of situations would probably benefit from talking to your best lawyer to understand legal options to a greater degree.

Figure 2 is based on the same data; the only difference is I have taken out 3/4 of the drug offenders (based on Sen. Webb’s finding that 3/4 of all drug offenders are non-violent offenders). Figure 2 shows what the prison population might look like if all 50 governors pardoned/commuted sentences for all non-violent state drug offenders and if President Obama did the same at the federal level.

Figure 2



Figure 3 represents a “libertarian fantasy” where all drugs are legalized and therefore; no crime associated with the non-existent war on (some) drugs. The remaining categories have not been altered for simplicity.

Figure 3



If the BOP statistics are an accurate sampling of the entire U.S. prison population, this would mean that with the act of releasing only non-violent drug offenders would reduce the overall population by 30.8% or roughly 713,000 (as shown in Figure 2). This would certainly go a long way toward reforming the prison system but would only be a start. To better allocate prison resources and to better answer the questions Sen. Webb wants answered, a philosophical question must be answered: Who do we want to lock up and for what purpose?

As someone who is a strong advocate of the rights of life, liberty, and property, it’s my belief that the only individuals who should ever see the inside of a jail or prison cell are those who have trampled on any of these rights of another individual. The only legitimate purpose of the government is to help individuals defend these rights, therefore; if an individual engages in an activity in which s/he does not threaten the rights of another individual then no crime has taken place.

In the real world we also have to realize that limited resources require prioritizing which criminals should be locked up and which should be dealt with differently. I doubt that many would say that the most violent of criminals should be free to re-offend. There really isn’t any punishment strong enough for someone who has intentionally taken the life of an innocent person; life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is as close to justice as the victim and offender can get.

We should also consider that putting an individual in prison should not only be considered punishment but more importantly a way of separating him or her from others s/he may wish to harm.

With this philosophical approach that only individuals who violate the rights of others should be in prison, does this mean that each and every petty criminal should be locked up?

In a word, the answer is no. In response to the open thread question I posed to readers, several made a very interesting suggestion: restitution.

Far too often we hear that criminals have some sort of “debt to society” which they must pay. I would argue that when an individual steals from someone else, it’s the person who was stolen from who the thief owes a debt, not “society.” With crimes with actual victims, why not force the offending party to repay the victim?

This approach could be used from the lowest level petty criminal to the Bernie Madoffs of the world. Which would do more to repay the debts of Madoff’s victims, a lengthy prison sentence or a liquidation of all of his assets seized by the government and given back to those he stole from?

Of course, not every criminal is as successful at screwing people over as Madoff. How can a victim be made whole if the individual who victimized him or her has no assets to seize and no wages to garnish? In such cases, perhaps imprisonment would be appropriate. Inmates in this category could work for a wage while in prison and all earnings would be paid directly to the victim. Once this individual has paid his/her debt to the victim, s/he would be released. If Sen. Webb’s purpose is to establish a committee is to look for innovative solutions in reforming America’s prison system, restitution is one idea which deserves further study.

Reforming the prison system will be impossible without returning to a philosophy which puts the rights of the individual first. As long as individuals are being put in prison for personal choices which do not victimize others, the prison population will only grow larger. In the meantime with the limited prison resources available, law makers need to set priorities and need to allow judges to judge particular circumstances of a case. This necessarily means scrapping once and for all the mandatory minimum sentencing experiment which has greatly contributed to the U.S. becoming the world’s largest jailer.

The War on (Some) Drugs & The Prison Industrial Complex in Perspective
Pew Report: 1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars in 2008

*Does anyone else remember when this was considered a large sum of money?

**Which I confess, I watch these shows fairly frequently. Forensic Files and The First 48 are among my favorites.

***Think about it: why is it that not every fatal auto accident makes the news? Could it be because they are so common? In general what makes something newsworthy is the fact that the “something” in question is unusual.

****Not visible on graphs