One out of every hundred adult Americans is in prison, according to a newly-released Pew Center report. The demographics are often horrifying. One out of every nine African-American males between the ages of 20-34 is incarcerated. While 1 out of every 355 women between the ages of 35-39 are in jail, for African-American women in that same age group the ratio is 1 out of every 100. Four states (Vermont, Oregon, Connecticut and Michigan) now spend more on prisons than they do on higher education. America leads the world in prison population, both by sheer numbers (2.3 million, compared to 1.5 million for the far more populous China) and per capita (750 per 100,000, compared to Russia and 628 per 100,000). America also ranks sixth in the number of executions per year, behind such luminaries as China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan. Judging from these numbers, you might think that America is in the grips of a terrifying crime wave.
Only, we aren't.
Over the past 20 years, when spending on prisons has increased from $11 billion per annum to the current $49 billion, the crime wave has stayed consistent. The issue is politically-motivated, “get tough on crime” initiatives like mandatory minimums and the bordering on-ridiculous War on Drugs. Now, faced with crushing budget shortfalls (California for instance, is $16 billion in the hole for 2008), states such as Kansas, Texas and Kentucky are taking clear-eyed looks at ways to decrease recidivism and lower incarceration rates. The Second Chance Act, currently in limbo in the Senate, is a small, but important step on the federal level.
Now, the question is what and how does this play in the election in November. Barack Obama and John McCain both fancy themselves as those who speak the hard truths. Will either of them talk about this one?