U.S. taxpayers spend at least $60 billion a year on a growing body of state and federal prisons, county jails and local lockups. With jail and prison populations that have increased nearly eightfold over the past 35 years, the United States has become the world's leading jailer.
More than one in every 100 U.S. adults is locked up -- and 5 million more are on probation or parole. At any given time, one in 32 adults is under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
Tough-on-crime policies, not increases in crime, are mostly responsible. Mandatory drug sentences, three-strike and so-called truth-in-sentencing laws, as well as high recidivism rates, have created our Incarceration Nation. Even so, violent crime rates are higher than when the nation's prison building boom started more than three decades ago.
It's time to reverse failed sentencing policies, restore certain social and legal rights for ex-felons, and slow the revolving doors of the penal system with better re-entry, education and training programs. Fully funding the Second Chance Act, which provides money for state and federal re-entry programs, would keep more ex-inmates out of prison.
Criminal justice reforms are critical to the health of the nation's cities, and they must become part of the next president's urban agenda. Most of the more than 600,000 people a year leaving U.S. prisons and jails return to disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. They go home poorly educated, lacking job skills, and socially and legally disabled by felony records.
Going to prison has become a norm in certain big-city neighborhoods, even a rite of passage. While mass incarceration has aimed to reduce crime, it has actually increased it by breaking up social networks and removing financial and emotional support from families and communities. Nearly half of the 2.3 million adults locked up are African Americans, who make up less than 13% of the U.S. population. A stunning one in nine black males between the ages of 20-34 is behind bars.
Felony convictions, whether or not they carried prison sentences, attach lifetime penalities to tens of millions of Americans. Roughly 1.8 million people in Michigan, for example, have criminal records, or nearly one in four adults. Most are felony offenders, with all that entails for future prospects. These staggering statistics hold true for the nation as a whole, with more than 55 million people with criminal records.
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