More Americans are incarcerated today than there are people in the entire state of New Mexico. The United States is only rivaled in its incarceration rate by North Korea, and not by a wide margin despite the Kim regime operating modern-day gulags.
The American incarceration rate is approximately eight times that of fellow G7 countries. Meanwhile, America’s crime rate, and particularly the rate of violent crime, is significantly higher relative to all other wealthy democracies.
When the scales fall from our eyes, we will have to decide whether we believe that Americans are inherently more prone to violence and criminality than citizens of other advanced nations or accept the stark reality of decades of horrifying public policy failure. Those scales will fall more quickly if we measure our penal system with the principle of solidarity.
From the perspective of solidarity, it’s startling to realize no other country comes close to the U.S. in the sheer volume of human captivity. America does not only bear this grotesque distinction in comparison to other Western democracies, its incarceration rate dwarfs those of almost all of the world’s most oppressive despotisms. Read this closely: The U.S. rate of incarceration is more than double that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who in 2017 was the recipient of the highest number of urgent appeals issued by the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Mass incarceration in America is not only profound fiscal irresponsibility and an unforgivable failure of public policy, but also a collective and fundamental humanitarian failure.
Harsh sentences for rapists, murderers and other repeat violent offenders are perfectly justifiable, and necessary measures. However, nearly 60% of American inmates are non-violent offenders, the majority of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, 85% of which are for mere possession, not trafficking.
Though recreational drug use may be a vice, drug addiction is a mental illness. No psychologically well person would lay waste to their lives and that of their families in the manner an addict does. In 2018, 70,000 Americans died from the treatable disease of drug addiction. Many drug users became addicted when they were children, or younger.
According to estimates from the Center for Disease Control, incidents of babies born addicted due to in utero drug exposure has quadrupled since 1999. For decades, we have addressed this growing problem with a dispassionate call for harsher punishments for the sick. Addiction is the leprosy of modernity, addicts are shunned for their illness.
That addiction is a disease is something that the American Psychiatric Association and National Institute on Drug Abuse has recognized for decades. Yet the ostensible war on drugs, more accurately described as a war on the mentally ill, wages on.
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans pay over $80 billion annually for the privilege of being the worlds most prolific jailer. A 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report, which included derivative expenses, estimated the actual annual cost at closer to $180 billion.
Given the option to help desperate people or punish them, the U.S. criminal justice policy has consistently chosen the latter. This is a rejection of solidarity. For less public expense than incarcerating someone for drug possession for one year (the average state drug possession sentence is 37 months), where they are typically denied access to treatment, the state could provide high quality drug rehabilitation programs that maximize the chance of them being able to get their lives back.
Drug addiction is not an easy disease to overcome, not least because of its stigma, but outcomes from treatment are overwhelmingly better than if the disease goes untreated. Most addicts do not stay clean on their first try, but an estimated 1-in-5 who received inpatient treatment remained drug free after 5 years. Based on that statistic, of the 455,000 Americans currently sitting in jail for drug crimes, proactive policies could give 90,000 of them their lives back at less expense than it is already costing to keep them locked up.
The primary predictor of criminal recidivism is the inability of inmates to find steady employment upon release. Meanwhile, a criminal record is automatically disqualifying for most jobs. When combined with ineffective enforcement of immigration law, ex-inmates are forced to compete with illegal immigrants for what few jobs are available to them. Helping ex-cons find jobs is a social good, an act of solidarity, because it reduces the likelihood of future criminal activity, promoting rehabilitation and public safety. However, the “tough on crime” crowd prefers less effective, more punitive measures.
Another baffling position supported by “tough on crime” crusaders is the death penalty. Whenever someone is executed by the state, a death certificate is issued and in every case the cause of death is listed as homicide. Last year, the U.S. committed 25 state-sponsored homicides. Setting aside the oxymoronic notion of righteous murder, in 2014, the National Academy of Sciences estimated as many as 4.1% of Americans sentenced to death (1-in-25) turn out to be innocent.
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, taxpayers pay on average a million-dollar premium, compared to non-capital cases, to put people on death row. That is neither Christian or conservative, nor is it, according to a 2009 study by the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, effective – 94.3% of criminologists who have studied the subject do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent.
A moral justice system can and ought to seek to protect citizens and deter crime, while dispensing with the baser desire to self-righteously mete out draconian punishment for vengeance’s sake. Americans must decide in what image we want to build our society. What motivates the desire to prioritize wrath over redemption, when both scripture and empirical evidence expose them as mutually exclusive?
It is necessary, though not sufficient, for a functioning society to foster compassion for those attracting our sympathy. But it is even more important, because it is so hard, to strive to have compassion for the despicable too. Compassion does not mean to spare the rod, but to extend it, whenever possible, within grasp of those who may never have had something to grab onto to pull themselves up out from darkness. Alternatively, by washing our hands of each other, we only dirty ourselves up.