There’s a city in America that’s not on any map, even though, with more than 2 million people, it’s bigger than Houston. More than 90 percent of its residents are men, half are black, and in the Nineties it grew about as fast as San Francisco. It is made up of the country’s prisoners, roughly 1 million of them nonviolent offenders. The United States now imprisons a bigger percentage of its population than any other country in the world. One in every 137 Americans is behind bars.
It hasn’t always been this way. In 1973, one in 1,042 Americans was in prison, and the nation felt safe enough. That year, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that “no new institutions for adults should be built, and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed,” because “the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure.”
But in the Eighties and Nineties, the prison became a favorite policy tool. This is not because crime was up — violent-crime rates stayed more or less flat in the Eighties before starting a precipitous drop in 1993, and property crime has fallen steadily since the early Seventies.
Rather, America developed an appetite for punishment. Being “tough” on crime has been politically essential since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan raised what he called “the battle flag” of the War on Drugs.
The first step was to broaden the definition of a felony. Many behaviors that used to be misdemeanors, principally drug possession or small-scale dealing, were redefined in the Eighties as serious, often federal, crimes. Police were given more freedom to arrest — more wiretaps, easier search warrants, expanded access to personal records. They were also given a financial incentive to make arrests; a series of laws, starting in 1970, let police seize crime-tainted assets and sell them to finance their own operations.
All this swept huge numbers of people into the judicial system. In court, prosecutors were assisted by looser rules of evidence and wielded expanded powers to coerce cooperation. Judges, meanwhile, lost their power to impose discretionary sentences: Congress and the states passed long lists of mandatory minimum sentences and “truth in sentencing” laws that established long, rigid prison terms and did away with parole. As a result, the prison population today is four times larger than it was when Ronald Reagan took office in 1980.
The country now spends more on prisons than on foreign aid, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education combined. In odd ways, this prison mania is skewing the political process. For every four black men who would be eligible to vote, one is forbidden to vote because he’s either in prison or an ex-con. The census, too, is distorted: Prisons are generally built in rural areas, but they house urban convicts. Almost half the population of tiny Coxsackie, New York, for example, are prisoners, most of them from New York City — this counts as a population shift, which means Coxsackie will get a chunk of New York City’s federal dollars.
Punishment is also big business. In 1984, the U.S. Corrections Corp. won a contract to run a prison for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, and an industry was born. In the Eighties, privatizing had a bracing, free-market appeal. Corporations could run prisons more efficiently than government, it was believed. Today, thirty-one states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have farmed out some of their imprisonment to private companies. Private prisons now house about 6 percent of the U.S. prison population, generating $1 billion in revenue for Corrections Corporation of America, Wackenhut Corrections Corp. and a dozen others.
Like a breeder reactor that creates its own fuel, the prison population is now big enough to generate its own growth, in the form of returning parolees. More than a third of those entering state prison are people who had earlier served time, were released on parole and screwed up again. “There’s a feedback loop,” says Allen Beck, chief of corrections statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. “The more you lock up, the more you release on parole, the more you place at risk of failure, the more fail, so the more come back.”
The high rate of American incarceration, at a time when crime rates are falling, can be read several ways. Conservatives argue that crime is down because we’re locking up dangerous people for longer sentences. They point out that crime rates were high in the 1960s, when imprisonment was low, and began to fall as the rate of imprisonment went up. “Though longer sentences may be one of the many contributing factors to the increased prison population, they also resulted in this decline in violent crime,” says Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been a strong advocate of tougher crime laws.
Liberals tend to blame the high rate of imprisonment on puritan vindictiveness, sensationalist media and naked racism. Why, they ask, are we locking up more and more minorities when ever-fewer crimes are being committed? “We can afford to be so punitive only because the burden of our tough-on-crime policies does not fall on the majority but on a disempowered minority group,” writes Georgetown University law professor David Cole in Legal Times. “Imagine what the politics of crime would look like if one in four white male babies could expect to be sentenced to a year or more of prison time.”
A growing debate addresses the estimated 1.2 million nonviolent offenders who crowd the nation’s prisons, many of whom were convicted of drug possession or street-level dealing. This is an inmate population that costs some $24 billion a year to keep locked up. The prison-packer that is most often questioned, even by the people who helped create it, is mandatory sentencing. The infamous Rockefeller drug laws, for example, impose a mandatory minimum of fifteen years for possession of four ounces of a narcotic.
“We may cast the net a little broadly at times,” says a Republican counsel to the House Crime Subcommittee, whose chairman, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), has been a leader of the get-tough movement in Congress for almost two decades. “We’d probably say there should be more diversion programs [for nonviolent drug offenders], that they shouldn’t incarcerate for simple possession as much as they do, and we could probably have a very interesting debate on marijuana.”
No one expects McCollum to support a bill repealing mandatory minimums for drug crime. But it is no small matter for a member of McCollum’s staff to concede misgivings, and to break the taboo on bestowing any legitimacy on the marijuana debate. It seems possible that the public may ultimately decide to stop sending so many people to the best place to learn how to be a criminal: prison.