As of 2011, only about 16 percent of inmates at state prisons and local jails are there for drug crimes, but the total figure is more than twice as many as are in the federal system for such offenses: 225,000 people in state prisons and more than 180,000 in local jails for drug crimes.
The grand total: Half a million Americans are doing time for drug-related crimes.
Read more analysis below the fold.
But punishment for drug crimes isn’t the only reason for the burgeoning of the numbers who are incarcerated. The Prison Policy Initiative notes:
The U.S. incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country. In fact, our rate of incarceration is more than five times higher than most of the countries in the world. Although our level of crime is comparable to those of other stable, internally secure, industrialized nations, the United States has an incarceration rate far higher than any other country.Nearly all of the countries with relatively high incarceration rates share the experience of recent large-scale internal conflict. But the United States, which has enjoyed a long history of political stability and hasn’t had a civil war in nearly a century and a half, tops the list.
If we compare the incarceration rates of individual U.S. states and territories with that of other nations, for example, we see that 36 states and the District of Columbia have incarceration rates higher than that of Cuba, which is the nation with the second highest incarceration rate in the world.
New Jersey and New York follow just after Cuba. Although New York has been actively working on reducing its prison population, it’s still tied with Rwanda, which has the third highest national incarceration rate. Rwanda incarcerates so many people (492 per 100,000) because thousands are sentenced or awaiting trial in connection with the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people.
The backwardness of U.S. incarceration policy is being given a few important tweaks by the Obama administration, particularly in the arena of disparity in drug sentencing. But this only affects less than 10 percent of those imprisoned for drug crimes in the federal system. While welcome, it does not touch the ideology that has put so many in the slammer and left tens of millions with felony records that makes life so much more difficult when they emerge. It’s no fluke that that these policies have disproportionately affected people of color, particularly African Americans as well as American Indians, the latter being incarcerated at the highest rate of any race or ethnicity although their total numbers are small because their portion of the population is.As every prison reform activist knows too well, making changes in these policies is an uphill slog. Part of the reason for that is that even many progressives don’t put such reforms anywhere near the top of their priority list in spite of the damage these policies do to the individuals imprisoned, their families and society itself.
A good starting point for a new emphasis on prison reform should be with juveniles. The Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. But the court did not make this retroactive. Thus, some 2,500 juveniles or people who were juveniles when their crime was committed are still serving these draconian sentences despite what we know about brain development of adolescents. Every one of these sentences ought to be tossed out, and while shorter terms of imprisonment may be sensible, a program that treats these offenders as redeemable is essential.
But that is only a starting point.