The numbers are frightening. Right now, 2.3 million American are behind bars. That’s 1 in 137 people, and the majority are African-American and Latino.
It’s mind boggling that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. Is the country overrun with evildoers, or are we are doing something different than, say, Canada, which only has 40,500 people behind bars. Even Iran, considered an oppressive nation, has a prison population of 218,000.
The consensus at yesterday’s American Justice Summit at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City was we are doing something exceedingly counterproductive—and it’s not sustainable.
As John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said about incarceration and its aftermath, “Higher-risk offenders leave lower-risk. Lower-risk offenders leave higher-risk.” And what does that mean? Simply that we may be locking up too many non-violent wrongdoers and turning them into hardened criminals behind prison walls.
And this failed American justice system of “lock ’em up” rather than dealing with root causes is costing us $74 billion a year. Do the math. That’s more than $30,000 per inmate on average yearly. That figure fluctuates greatly. New York State spends $60,000, and New York City? Try $168,000. What do we expend per student in public schools nationwide? A meager $12,600.
How did we become the world’s largest jailer, and what are the consequences?” John Jay College president Jeremy Travis asked, noting that the prison population has quadrupled since 1972, shortly after President Nixon launched his so-called war on drugs, the rate of incarceration has increased sevenfold.
A sevenfold increase—while the crime rate has fallen all across the country.
And remember, it’s African-Americans and Latinos who are disproportionally represented. Think about this. An African-American without a high-school diploma has a 68-percent chance of spending at least a year behind bars, compared to a 15-percent likelihood 30 years ago.
Are blacks and Latinos simply committing more crimes that whites? Well, no. Another speaker, Glenn Martin, a justice-reform advocate who served six years in New York state prisons on an armed-robbery conviction, explained the demographic disparity this way. “The United States has the longest and most successful diversion program of anywhere in the world—it’s called white skin.”
Most in attendance agreed that we have to cut the prison population by half. As author Nell Bernstein noted, if we want fewer adults in prison, stop locking up teens. Stashing a child in a juvenile-detention center away from family makes that kid twice as likely to end up in the adult prison system. “Reforming the juvenile-justice system will get us halfway there,” Bernstein said.
The summit’s organizers promised to produce a white paper based on the best ideas presented. While the day featured some interesting programs, I was left wondering how many of them could effectively scale. If you have ideas that can fix the broken American justice system, submit them to [email protected], or tweet them using the hashtag #AmericanJustice.