In 1970, fewer than 200,000 Americans were incarcerated. Today, with some 2.3 million in prison or jail, the US has more people and a higher percentage of its population locked up than any other country. Adding those on probation and parole, over seven million are under penal supervision. Although much of the growth stems from tougher drug laws, increased sentencing for most offenses has played a large role, too. According to criminologist Todd Clear, prison sentences in the US today average almost twice as long as thirty years ago. American prisoners now endure sentences twice those of the English, four times those of the Dutch, and five to ten times those of the French for the same crimes.
Our penal system affects more middle-class white Americans than we might realize, yet the impact on them is tiny compared with that on minorities – especially young black men from impoverished urban neighborhoods. Over 90 percent of inmates are male, and while 12 percent of the U.S. population is African-American, over 40 percent of prisoners with sentences longer than one year are black. The toll on black families has been incalculable. From the end of slavery until 1970, most black children lived in a two-parent household; now, the majority are cared for only by women. While not the only factor at play, the numbers of black men behind bars have left an entire cohort of girlfriends, wives, and female relatives to raise their kids alone. In minority urban ghettos, where the effects are concentrated, so many men are incarcerated that children think of this as a normal part of adult male life. Many barely know imprisoned fathers. With most prisoners sent off more than 100 miles from home, family visits can be next to impossible. An added irony is that the prisons support the economies of distant, mainly rural and white locales, while the inner cities bearing the brunt of crime remain impoverished.
The costs of our incarceration binge fly in the face of economic sense. From 1982 to 2006, the amount spent on corrections rose by 660 percent. The 2009 bill for jails and prisons was over $60 billion; New Jersey, where I live, spent about $39,000 on each state prisoner in 2009, far more than the cost of tuition at a state college. Some states have cut corrections budgets in response to the economic crisis, but others have increased them, as has the federal government. Our enthusiasm for locking up people raises important moral questions about ourselves. Dostoyevsky was right on the mark when he wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” But even if we focus only on dollars and cents, we must consider the lost opportunities to invest resources in schools, free clinics, afterschool programs, transportation, and other public goods. Politicians and the media have everyone in a frenzy about deficits. Two obvious ways to balance government budgets are to tax the rich and cut defense spending, but it would certainly help if we reduced the populations behind prison walls. Some states have made small moves in this direction, aided by recent declines in crime. But politicians are generally fearful that if they advocate policies to reduce prison populations, they will appear soft on crime.