Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has put in place radical, unprecedented policies and practices that attempted to address crime through prioritizing harsh and disproportionate punishment, rather than prevention or rehabilitation. By 2010, 7.25 million Americans were under some form of correctional control ¹— either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole — up from 1.84 million in 1980.²
The term “mass incarceration” refers to the unique way the U.S. has locked up a vast population in federal and state prisons, as well as local jails.
But this academic sounding term doesn’t capture the insanity of the situation.
These prisoners are disproportionately black and Latino — against whom the system is biased at every level. Despite similar rates of drug use, black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana use,⁴ and black males are often given longer sentences for crimes than their white peers.⁵
Many of the people locked up should be receiving treatment in the community. A 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics Study found that more than half of all inmates have mental health problems.⁶
How did this happen?
The “tough on crime” punishment philosophy of the 1980’s and 90’s, combined with a heinous “War on Drugs,” led to legislation under Republican and Democratic administrations that used a jail cell as a first, rather than last, resort for people who broke the law.
This uncompromising posture, which often exploited racial fear, became an essential part of running a political campaign. For years, elected officials competed with one another on how brutally they would be willing to punish people who broke the law, especially regarding drug-code violations. Legislators enacted policies that led to more people being locked away for increasingly smaller offenses, and combined them with further policies that kept people locked up longer.
The prison population skyrocketed.
It somehow became understood as acceptable to put people in prison for non-violent crimes. But there is nothing normal about the way the U.S. locks away its citizens.
In fact, it’s unparalleled anywhere else in the world, even compared to the most repressive regimes.
Over the course of three decades, the U.S. built a gargantuan system of state punishment that destroys lives and communities, in a racially discriminatory way, at great financial cost.⁷ More ridiculous still, there is no solid evidence that tougher punishment even deters crime initially,⁸ and inmates in state prisons are likely to be arrested and locked up again after their release.⁹
What is being done?
Within the last few years, both Democrats and Republicans seem to be acknowledging the need for reform. It’s as if they’ve woken up from a decades-long stupor.
There are so many associated issues that need attention as well — the racial bias at every level of the criminal justice system, the use of solitary confinement, unemployment and recidivism, the way we deprive felons of their rights as citizens — the list goes on and on.
The good news is that for the first time in 33 years, the federal and state prison population declined in tandem in 2014.¹⁰ But 1 or 2 percent annual reductions will not solve this problem. We need radical reform to confront the massive damage that’s been done.
The first step is acknowledging the senselessness and inhumanity of mass incarceration, and understanding that millions of people are waiting every day for reform to come.
(1) “Correctional Population in the United States, 2010.” Retrieved from The Punishment Imperative, by Todd Clear and Natasha Frost, 2014.
(2) “Probation and Parole in the United States: 2007 Statistical Tables” 2009. (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from The Punishment Imperative, by Todd Clear and Natasha Frost, 2014.
(3) Correctional Population in the United States, [Image] 2014. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Danielle Kaeble, Lauren Glaze, Anastasios Tsoutis, and Todd Minton
(4) The War on Marijuana in Black and White. 2013.American Civil Liberties Union.
(5) Report on the Continuing Impact of United States v. Booker on Federal Sentencing. 2012. United States Sentencing Commission.
Incarceration rate by country[image]: World Prison Population List (11th Edition) 2015. Institute for Criminal Policy Research.
(6) Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates. 2006. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report.
(7)SMART on CRIME: Reforming The Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century. 2013. U.S. Department of Justice.
(8) The Punishment Imperative, by Todd Clear and Natasha Frost, 2014. pages 120–121.
(9) The Misleading Math of ‘Recidivism’ 2014. Dana Goldstein.
(10) State, Federal Prison Populations Decline Simultaneously for First Time in 36 Years. 2015. The Pew Charitable Trusts.
It’s the piece of personal technology that the government has always dreamed of.
Happy New Year everyone!
Political leaders in the U.S., particularly on the far right, have used the attacks in Paris to galvanize support for their anti-immigrant platforms. Based on evidence that one of the attackers may have posed as a refugee to gain access to Europe, the House recently passed a bill to halt settling any refugees in the U.S. that originated from Syria or Iraq. Over two dozen governors have also, without any legal authority, refused refugees. This behavior, while not without precedent, is both baseless and repugnant to the fundamental character of this country.
There are over 4.3 million U.N-registered refugees who have fled Syria. Lebanon, which had a population of 4.5 million, absorbed 1.2 million Syrian refugees. Turkey, with a population of 75 million, is housing 2 million refugees.
And it’s not just countries in the Middle East accepting refugees from Syria. Germany (80 million) has accepted 38,500 Syrian refugees. France (population: 66 million) announced, days after the attack in Paris, that it would accept 30,000 refugees. Canada, (population: 35 million), has taken in 36,300 Syrian refugees since 2013.
The U.S., a country of 319 million people, so far, has accepted 1,682 refugees – about half of which are children, according to the State Department. The process currently takes about 18-24 months, and includes interviews with officials from the Department of Homeland Security. Syrian refugees, in particular, have their documents placed under extra scrutiny. For all the panic, this doesn’t seem like a very convenient way for a would-be terrorist to gain access to the U.S.
In terms of moral responsibility, it should be noted that ISIS emerged largely as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and particularly the decision to disband the Iraqi army. Yet France and Germany, two countries which sternly opposed the Iraq war, and bearing much more of the burden of accepting families fleeing the region.
The Obama administration has pledged to take in 10,000 refugees from Syria. The U.S. can and should accept significantly more. There was also opposition to accepting refugees from Southeast Asia during the last decades of the 20th century – but the U.S. accepted more than a million without significant issue. Welcoming Syrian refugees is important for humanitarian reasons, and also for our character as a country. If some of the Republican candidates truly want to “make America great again,” they could start by returning America to a country that welcomes, rather than repels, immigrants and refugees yearning to breath free.
I drew and published an ink drawing every day for the month of October. I just published a quick reflection and all 31 drawings on Medium. Check it out!
Last year I thought about using a reality TV show metaphor to highlight the similarities with the way we carry out elections. When I went back to the idea, it turned out that I wasn’t even working with a metaphor anymore. The huge field of Republican candidates, led by the former star of NBC’s reality hit “The Apprentice,” combined with the unspeakable laziness of broadcast media has led to an elimination game show style of campaign strategy and media coverage. All we can hope is that whoever wins is prepared for the challenges they face when they go from being a contestant in a reality show to President of the United States.
My name is Donald Trump, and I am a troll face.
All due respect to Carlos Ramirez (Whynne) who created the trollface meme.