You’ve most likely seen the numbers on US prisons that have been making the rounds. More than one in every hundred adults in the United States is in jail or prison, amounting to more than 2.3 million Americans behind bars. This record rate of incarceration in the “land of the free” far exceeds that of any other country, both numerically and as a percentage of the overall population. State governments shell out an average of $50 billion a year on corrections, while the feds pick up the bill for another $5 billion, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center On The States that included data from federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and Bureau of Prisons.
The massive growth in American prison populations is largely because of more rigorous state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s, running an interesting parallel with both both state and federal governments’ devotion to locking up every hippie, hepcat or junkie from sea to shining sea. The US government spent over 19 billion dollars in 2003 on the Nixon-coined War on Drugs, at a rate of about $600 per second. The budget has since been increased by over a billion dollars, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
It’s interesting to examine the correlation of these prison statistics and the hard-line focus of people like Rudy Giuliani, who saw to it that marijuana arrests increased tenfold on his watch as mayor of New York City. The year before Rudy took office, 5,100 pot busts were reported in New York. In 2002, that number had rocketed to more than 50,000. Over ninety percent of arrests in 2002 were for possession rather than dealing. I wonder how many would-be terrorists were caught during the same period, under the rule of Mr. 9/11.
A study released last week by the Sentencing Project found that arrests for marijuana account for nearly all of the increase in drug arrests seen during the 1990s. The report also found that one in four people in state prisons for marijuana offenses can be classified as a “low-level offender,” and it estimated that $4 billion a year is spent on arresting and prosecuting marijuana crimes. According to drugwarfacts.org, “In 2004, 44.2 percent of the 1,745,712 total arrests in the U.S. for drug abuse violations were for marijuana-a total of 771,605. Of those, 684,319 people were arrested for possession alone.” When you account for the fact that it costs an average of $20,000 a year to incarcerate a person in this country, these numbers begin to get ugly.
Experts have been arguing for years that the US drug war, which costs an estimated $35 billion a year, has has utterly failed in its attempt to rid our nation of illicit substances. The conservative American Enterprise Institute published a report last month titled “Are We Losing The War On Drugs?” In it, the right-leaning authors declare that “criminal punishment of marijuana use does not appear to be justified.” You know it’s time to rethink the format when even the Republicans start making sense.
If the experts and analysts on my TV aren’t all out of their goddamned minds, we’re headed for a pretty serious recession. With the approaching economic crisis, Americans are going to cast a much more skeptical eye on the programs and policies that cost billions of taxpayer dollars each year- particularly ones that a majority of the population objects to. (Iraq, anyone?)
While teachers make less than waiters and garbage men, and school programs are badly underfunded and are being cut left and right, we’re spending staggering, record amounts of money jailing nonviolent drug offenders and an unpopular, deceitfully motivated war in Iraq ($515 billion so far, or $341 million a day, according to nationalpriorities.org). The percentage of states that spend more on corrections than on higher education has, sadly, reached double digits. Five states- Oregon, Connecticut, Michigan, Vermont and Delaware- lead the pack, while Maryland is quickly climbing the ranks, spending 74 cents on corrections for every dollar it spends on higher education.
The point is this: With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the US has almost a quarter of the world’s inmates. Those numbers are indefensible in a country that has killed so very many in the name of “freedom.” The education system in America is in decline, while more and more jails are built to house the kids that veer from the straight and narrow. Zero tolerance policies leave no room for movement and little differentiation between casual users and those entrenched in the trade. With a looming economic crisis on the horizon, perhaps people will begin paying more attention to the fact that billions of our tax dollars are being wasted while the spinning plates of the infrastructure grow ever more unstable. Something needs to change.