Crime has fallen precipitously since the high of the early ’90s. For example, from 1980 to 2005, the estimated incidence of rape fell by 85%. In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in NYC. In 2010, there were only 536. Crime has continued to fall even during the recession.
But this is not actually true. Crime has merely been transplanted and concentrated in our nation’s prisons and, incredibly, crime rate statistics do not include crimes which occur in prison. This is totally understandable, right? Crimes against criminals don’t count! But, lately I have pretended that they do count, which has led to some basic research about the U.S. penal system, to a discovery of an obnoxiously worthy cause, and now I am less content in my ignorance and apathy–a rookie mistake. (If somebody can explain all this away please let me know!)
In recent posts, I noted the media frenzy around Trayvon Martin’s death and that, while the incident was tragic, murder by strangers, especially neighborhood watch volunteers, is not a top societal problem. In an effort to walk my talk I am taking the next few posts avoiding the latest stories (Obama’s for gay marriage!?) in order to highlight the critical situation in our burgeoning penal system. These issues receive little attention, and, in my opinion, could easily be much improved. For those in search of a crusade, you might consider it.
Thoughtful citizens take note: the U.S. prison population has boomed (this would make a good voting quiz question). It rose 400% from 1980 to 2007, while the general population grew 33% in the same period, until U.S. prisons housed 2.3 million with about 5 million people on parole–a total population greater than the municipalities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco combined. This makes the United States the most incarcarated country in the world and second most in known history (supposedly the USSR under Stalin just edges us out). Today, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people. We spend $70 billion of the $200 billion spent globally on keeping people locked up.
Many factors contribute to the rise in the U.S. prison population. One is the war on drugs. Another is 3 strike and other laws that demand stricter penalties which the public demanded after the rise in crime in the 80s and 90s. Unfortunately, offenses that count towards 3 strike laws can be quite minor, such as stealing videos from wallmart, etc. Life sentences are also given out more often than they used to be. In 2003, 127,677 Americans were serving life sentences, an 83% jump in 11 years. For these reasons and others, the prison population grew.
At first, the scale of this prison population spike just seemed strange. After all, have we really had a 400% increase in depravity in the last 30 years? Regardless, perhaps the rise is gravy if prison life means simply reading, watching TV, and exercising. But the truth seems a bit more complicated. (Part 2 to come.)
(Unattributed quotes or stats are pulled from a fairly well-known article by Christopher Glazek.)