Thanks to everyone who sent me this...
A NUMBER of news stories this spring have shown us that the criminal sentencing system is out of line - both in Massachusetts and in the nation as a whole. The United States has not just the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but also one-fourth of all of the prisoners in the world.
What has led us to this? And what is it about our priorities that has us spending more on incarceration than higher education?
In Massachusetts, we have over 25,000 inmates serving time in county jails or state prisons. Governor Deval Patrick's proposed 2009 budget seeks $1.4 billion for the sheriffs' departments and the Department of Correction. This money is primarily for incarceration. The same budget proposes $963 million for higher education.
The prisons and jails are seriously overcrowded, not just with convicts but also with hundreds of additional pre-trial detainees who either cannot make bail or are being held without bail pending their trials. A federal lawsuit has forced one county sheriff, in Worcester, to choose which inmates will be released before their sentences are completed. Some detainees are left in local lock-ups because of space shortages.
Incarceration rates increased dramatically when the "War on Drugs" was launched in the 1980s. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, strict mandatory minimum sentences were enacted for drug dealing. One of those sentences, for selling any type or quantity of drug within 1,000 feet of a school, annually sends more than 300 people to jail for a mandatory minimum of two years.