The number of people behind bars in the “land of the free” is grown as large as the combined populations of Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.
That’s the shocking fact in a Pew Center on the States report showing that one in 100 adults in the U.S. are in prison or jail–more than 2.3 million people.
When it comes to locking up its people, the country that claims to be the “world’s greatest democracy” is far ahead of every other nation–ahead of China, ahead of Russia, ahead of all the tyrannies that the U.S. government supports around the world–both in absolute numbers of prisoners and the rate of incarceration.
As has always been the case in a country founded on slavery, the inmates of America’s prisons are disproportionately people of color. Among African American men over 18, one in 15 are in prison–between the ages of 20 and 34, fully one in nine Black men are behind bars. When those on parole, probation or otherwise involved in the criminal justice system are included, that statistic rises to one in three.
As staggering as these facts are, the stories of the individual human beings behind these statistics–men and women whose lives have been destroyed by the criminal justice system–are even more horrifying.
Mark Clements is one of them. Mark was 16 years old when Chicago police officers and detectives picked him up on suspicion of setting a fire that killed four people. The white cops worked for Jon Burge–Mark became one of the hundreds of African American suspects tortured until the “confessed” by Chicago police under Burge’s command.
Mark was kept in lockup for a year until he was old enough to stand trial as an adult. During his sentencing, Mark pleaded before the judge for more than two hours that he didn’t commit the crime–that the police had beaten him into confessing. The judge sat with folded arms, staring straight ahead–and after Mark was done, he imposed the “mandatory” sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Mark is 45 today. He has spent two-thirds of his life in prison. And if the state of Illinois gets his way, he will die there.
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For the past two decades, crime rates have been in long-term decline, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the prison population has exploded during this same time.
To put this into proportion, between 2005 and 2006, the U.S. prison population rose by more than 65,000, an increase of almost 3 percent, which is on the low side for annual figures over the past 25 years. By contrast, in 1972, the total U.S. prison population was 196,092.
Who accounts for the vast number of people warehoused in America’s jails and prisons? According to Justice Department statistics, more than half the people in the federal prison system and one in five inmates in state prisons were drug offenders–almost half a million in total.
Many of these prisoners were convicted of nonviolent offenses. More than a quarter of drug offenders in state prison are serving time for nothing more than possession. According to the Sentencing Project, arrests for marijuana possession accounted for 79 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s–despite the fact that not a single death has been attributed specifically to marijuana use, unlike such legal drugs as alcohol and tobacco.
David Ciglar pled guilty to growing marijuana seedlings in his garage in Oakland, Calif.–and received the state’s mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.
“My family is devastated,” says David in the book Shattered Lives: Portraits from America’s Drug War. “My wife is living every day wondering if she can make it financially and mentally. My kids don’t know why their dad was taken away for such a long time. I have not even bonded with my youngest daughter. She was 2 when I left her.”
Richard Nixon officially declared the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” in 1971, but the drug war didn’t really get under way until Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. The casualties have been mounting ever since.
One of the drug war’s chief weapons has been the 100-to-1 rule that governs sentencing in convictions for possession and distribution of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Under the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and another law passed in 1988, possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine (about the weight of two pennies) results in a mandatory sentence of five years, while it takes 500 grams of the powder form of cocaine to yield the same sentence.
Behind the disparity is an openly racist double standard: African Americans account for most of those convicted and sent to prison for offenses related to crack cocaine–including 82 percent of those prosecuted and jailed at the federal level–even though they are a minority of users.
Those ensnared in the drug war aren’t typically high-level dealers, either, according to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project. “By and large, these defendants are not the kingpins of the drug trade,” Mauer wrote. “Data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission document 73 percent of the crack defendants had only low-level involvement in drug activity, such as street-level deals, couriers or lookouts.”
The drug warriors’ justification for the 100-to-1 rule was that crack was so highly addictive, and that its users became super-violent. Many of these stereotypes have been proven untrue, yet the bias in sentencing remains.
According to Carol Brook, deputy director of the federal defender program for the Northern District of Illinois, “These disparities exist, even though we know that the physiological and psychoactive effects of crack and powder cocaine are virtually identical. They exist even though the effects of prenatal exposure to crack and powder cocaine are identical. They exist even though the epidemic of violence and rapid spread to youth that crack was suppose to create never happened.”
Despite the countless reports and studies, and the pleas from drug-war victims, their families and activists, Congress to this day has failed to change the 100-to-1 rule–though the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted last year to modify penalties for crack cocaine offenses.
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The terrible impact of the “tough-on-crime” crusade can be seen in another disturbing statistic disclosed by the Pew report: More than half of all released offenders end up back behind bars within three years. Some commit another crime, but others are guilty of minor violations of the terms of their release–according to federal statistics, more than a third of people who entered prison in 2005 were arrested for parole violations.
This reality isn’t altogether surprising given the 20-year trend of dramatic cuts to education programs for prisoners, which have been shown to be the single-most important factor in reducing recidivism.
Such programs grew widely as a result of the Attica prison uprising in 1971–as of 1995, there were still 350 programs that allowed prisoners to earn college degrees. But thanks to “law-and-order” measures passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton, they began to disappear. Only 12 of these programs exist today.
There are finally some cracks appearing in the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality of lawmakers. Sadly, however, many of the proposals under consideration now aren’t driven by a change of heart, but by the financial crisis caused by states facing the burden of paying for incarcerating ever-growing numbers of people.
According to the Pew study, five states spend more of their budget on prisons than they do on higher education. Overall, between 1987 and 2007, “state spending on higher education has increased 21 percent, while corrections spending had more than doubled, increasing 127 percent,” the Economic Policy Institute reported.
This economic burden is forcing some welcome policy changes. In Texas, for example, some drug offenders are being put into treatment programs instead of prison. Other states are also considering early release programs, and the guidelines on crack cocaine offenses accepted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission are being applied retroactively.
This is a move in the right direction, but it is taking place too slowly–and the lives of 2.3 million people are wasting away in the meantime.
Earlier in March, the writers of the HBO drama The Wire spoke for them in an essay in Time magazine. If asked to serve on a jury in a drug case, they would vote to acquit, the writers said. “No longer,” they concluded, “can we collaborate with a government that uses non-violent drug offenses to fill prisons with it’s poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.”