One in 100: Behind Bars In America, 2008

A new report, One in 100, from the Pew Charitable Trusts is drawing attention to the remarkable growth in the U.S. prison population. The Washington Post reports: “With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second.”

I do not think our prison population should be some function of the overall adult population in the United States. But, still, when the freest country in the world is locking up more people than a much more populous totalitarian state, policymakers ought to pause and ask themselves this question: Do so many Americans really need to be kept behind iron bars? I addressed that question in a Washington Post article a few years ago — just as our prison population was breaking the two-million-prisoner mark. The short answer is no. 

The subject is not that complicated. Social engineers thought that a ban on drug use would work. It has not. Federal and state drug laws are broken millions of times each and every month. The social engineers have tried increasing the penalties and stepping up enforcement in order to “send messages.” The courts and prisons are busier than ever, but the drug trade continues to thrive.  

When the prisons are overflowing in certain jurisdictions, the system starts backing up and the police will focus on the most violent offenders and only the “major drug traffickers.” In the jurisdictions where there is some extra prison bed space (such places are few and far between), the police can “crack down” on (low level) drug dealers and users. Given that reality, one must recognize the folly of the conservative policy prescription, which basically is: Let’s build some new prisons. The liberal policy prescription of “home monitoring” and “drug treatment” do not address the core problem. 

The costs of incarceration are keeping the most zealous drug warriors in check because they cannot persuade enough people to spend whatever it takes to enforce the law against the possession and ingestion of an arbitrary list of substances. The course we are now following is nothing but a series of stop-gap measures — i.e., the police will ignore some drug dealing, the judges will send more people into drug treatment (whether they need it or not), and the wardens will have the inmates set up cots and bunk beds in the cafeterias and exercise rooms at night. 

For additional Cato work on this subject, go here.