America is Number One – In Imprisonment

I’ve talked before about excessive, “bossy” government. Most of us don’t much feel it in our daily lives. But when you disobey, the boss puts you in prison. You may think you’re no criminal, so there’s nothing to fear. Think again.

The 7/24 Economist had an excellent feature on American incarceration, with some frightening examples of how seemingly innocent activities can land you in prison. Like the 4 lobster importers who used plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes. That heinous offense got them 8-year sentences.

The problem is way too many laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties, and an inflexibly bureaucratic justice system (e.g., mandatory minimum sentences) incapable of applying common sense. Plus a political climate wherein every office seeker has to seem tougher on crime than the other guy, producing ever more draconian laws.

Perhaps ironically, both left and right wingers are culpable. Both often mount moralistic high horses and see anyone who doesn’t conform to their precepts as a bad person who probably deserves to be punished. Both use government to inflict it, filling the law books with requirements, to conform to this or that detail of some policy agenda, on pain of a fine or prison. When they say, “government should do more,” the ostensible aim may be societal improvement, but the means reflexively tend to be creation of more rules coercively enforced by criminal sanctions. (E.g., fining people for not having health insurance, the fine backed up by the sanction of prison for nonpayment.)

The result is that “the land of the free” actually has more people locked up, in relation to population, than any other country (including Russia). Nine times more than Germany, for example. Americans are not 9 times naughtier than Germans; nor is Germany more crime-ridden due to its leniency. While imprisoning violent bad guys does curb crime by keeping them off the streets, that logic applies only to a small part of America’s prison population. Most are no threat to society, and jailing them is a horrendous cost we can’t afford — $50,000 a year per inmate in California, for example – but the greater cost is human destruction, blighting lives and their ability to be contributing members of society. And it’s often simply unjust.

Just imagine even a modest reform, sentencing many of these people to community service instead of jail. Better for them, obviously. And – better for the community, gaining the boon of their service rather than the cost of their suffering.

A big part of the problem is the insane war on drugs. I don’t use the word insane loosely. We arbitrarily decree that drugs like pot and heroin are criminal, while nicotine and alcohol, though far more damaging, are fine. Attempting to enforce this logical absurdity we waste untold billions that could otherwise be spent in socially useful ways; we shred civil liberties, turn our streets into war zones, and destroy hundreds of thousands of lives by making convicts of them. You can bleat all you want about the evils of drug use, but surely the “cure” is far worse than the disease, with the harm done by the war on drugs vastly dwarfing that of drug use itself. And anyway, it’s not a cure at all – it doesn’t reduce drug use one iota.

Why doesn’t the anti-war movement march in the streets against the carnage of this war?

5 Responses to “America is Number One – In Imprisonment”

  1. Lee Says:

    Why doesn’t the anti-war movement march in the streets against the carnage of this war?

    If you mean mandatory and excessive sentences, it does! Or more precisely, many participants do. Also, many in the peace movement also rally against the insanity of our imprisonment and deportation “cure” for the undocumented workers “problem.” The violent “cure” for terrorism is not the only one that the peace movement finds lacking.

    I read an interesting book called Beyond Prisons. Its central thesis is that there is way too much emphasis on punitive justice and much too little emphasis on restorative justice. Interestingly, the book relates that it is the Friends who played a big role in emphasizing prison terms, as alternatives to whippings and similar. Needless to say, this Quaker “ideal” didn’t work out. The book discusses some small communities (some Native American nations, and maybe elsewhere) that have adopted restorative justice systems, and they seem to be working out.

    Perhaps ironically, both left and right wingers are culpable

    Please don’t blame the health care fines and prison sentences on left wingers. (Perhaps you weren’t?) Lieberman is responsible for that mess and he is not a left winger. I didn’t see that crap in single-payer plans. The little positive I see in the current plan is that it is bad enough that people will want to fix it, and I have some hope that the fix will be a step forward rather than a step backward.

    Plus a political climate wherein every office seeker has to seem tougher on crime than the other guy, producing ever more draconian laws.

    This is not the government’s fault; it is our (the voters) fault. My arguments in favor of sensible forms of justice can get me labeled as an apologist for criminals, but I persevere nonetheless. Please, join me!

  2. OhioRiver Says:

    There are numerous reasons for so many people in prison that includes the govt & the voters fault. First, a tyranny of govt. encourages a police state as we have now. It is important to get everyone with a ‘record’ so they can be monitored by the simplest police state ways (traffice violations example). Welcome to the Police State. Now, it’s the People’s civic job to stop this, but no one gets involved any more so we must look at the rise/fall of all great civilizations & see America is on the same path.

  3. bruce ryan Says:


    IF you drop your left/ right baggage and stick to your ideas you might get more sympathy.

  4. Lee Says:

    Bruce — I am hear to learn! Please elaborate on which you think is baggage and which you are sympathetic to. Thanks in advance.

  5. bruce ryan Says:

    Lee, I was perfectly willing to learn from your post until you started defending a political party over another. If we are to think as men lets not revert to clans.
    There is not much virgin territory on either side of a political group.

    Now that I reread your post maybe I should apologize, I don’t come close enough to your way of thinking to agree…. and all because of your health care point, up until then I could listen to what you had to say.


    Its not you, its me.

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