The big issues attracting all the attention in the chaotic Trump administration — Russian collusion, North Korea — tend to obscure less prominent ones that deserve attention, as well.
Incarceration, for example. You’ve probably heard that a lot of Americans are in prison, but let’s look away from the headlines long enough to consider the scale of this confinement.
Permit me to rely on an expert: Holly Harris is the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. In the March/April 2017 edition of Foreign Affairs, Harris puts numbers to the various ways that a high rate of incarceration has become a phenomenon of American life.
In 1972, for example, 161 out of every 100,000 U.S. residents were incarcerated; by 2015, nearly four times as many — 670 — were in prison or jail. According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, making our country the most highly incarcerated, by far, among industrialized nations.
More numbers: The average annual cost to feed, house and guard these inmates is around $30,000. According to the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, combined state and federal expenditures for corrections rose from $17 billion in 1980 to more than $80 billion in 2010, adjusted for inflation.
While the rate and cost of incarceration have risen dramatically, Harris points out that the crime rate has fallen, contrary to candidate Donald Trump’s assertion during the campaign that “Crime is out of control.”
In fact, in 1991 officials reported 758 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans; by 2015, the number had dropped to 373. Harris argues that the “idea of a new crime wave is a myth,” and that the burgeoning rate of incarceration is the result of “tough on crime” policies that began to take hold in the early 1980s.
The fairly reasonable assumption that locking up criminals would reduce crime led to the implementation of mandatory minimum sentencing, which prevented judges from considering meliorating circumstances that indicate shorter sentences for non-violent offenders. But according to scholars William Spelman and Steven Levitt only 25 percent of the decrease in crime can be attributed to longer mandatory sentences.
And then there are the drugs. Harris reports that more than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses and that in 2010, 40 percent were subject to mandatory minimum sentences.
In 1980, the federal prison population was 24,640; after the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which implemented mandatory minimum sentencing, the prison population peaked at 220,000 in 2013.
Most Americans probably agree that the societal and monetary costs of this much incarceration are too high, especially when many inmates are low-level, non-violent drug offenders who are serving hopelessly long sentences imposed by mandatory — that is, arbitrary — sentencing guidelines.
In fact, Harris cites bipartisan efforts in a number of states to reduce prison populations. In many cases, sentencing alternatives for low-level, non-violent offenders have resulted in decreased prison populations as well as drops in crime.
At the federal level, sentencing reform found bipartisan support during the Bush and Obama administrations, but momentum slowed during the 2016 campaign.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is unlikely to continue efforts for rational incarceration reform. It has been willing to use the false narrative of an explosive “crime wave” for political advantage, and an iconic image from the campaign embodies the administration’s casual attitude toward imprisonment: “Lock her up, lock her up.”
And, predictably, on May 10, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible charges and sentences against suspects, essentially reversing efforts by states and the Obama administration to issue penalties, especially for drug offenses, that embody more effective penal practices.
To be clear: sentencing reform does not reflect a desire to be “soft on crime.” The law has to have a sharp edge.
But overly harsh sentences for crimes that stem from addictions do not serve the public’s well-being. Unfortunately this nuance may be lost on the current administration. Early indications are that more Americans will be in prison for longer periods of time. Our society will suffer accordingly.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at email@example.com. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.