As the economy slumbers and state budgets face more draconian cuts, one issue that should be on the plate of every policymaker – and every presidential candidate – is the mass incarceration of Americans. More than one in every 99 adults lives behind bars in the U.S. In 2007 alone, states spent more than $44 billion on incarceration and related expenses. By the end of this year, that tab will climb by another $25 billion.
As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, we should be asking the candidates: is public safety, the economy, or our civil liberties being served by this extraordinary expenditure of taxpayer dollars? The question has barely hit the campaign trail, but it should. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of those behind bars worldwide. Those are numbers are all the more troubling when statistics show there's little relationship between longer prison sentences and lower crime rates.
Some states – faced with the fact that prison costs are now the second fastest growing category of state budgets – have embraced that reality and are enacting less-punitive approaches, especially for low-level and non-violent drug offenses.
This doesn’t just make economic sense – it’s also better for public safety. More than half of all released prisoners end up back in jail because lengthy sentences undermine rehabilitation, tear families apart – and result in higher crime.
The U.S. can lay claim to be the world leader in many areas. Unfortunately, having more people behind bars than any other nation is a dubious distinction Americans can afford to live without. Politicians who favor a different approach should not be labeled as soft on crime. Rather, they should be praised for their common sense.