It’s time to end the United States’ exceptionalism when it comes to incarcerating its citizens. Our objective should be to make America average. We need to re-join the family of civilized nations when it comes to incarceration.
A groundbreaking report released yesterday by the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, documents the unprecedented and costly price of U.S. incarceration rates. With less than five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, the U.S. continues to rank first among nations in both prison and jail population and per capita rates. As the report points out, this unprecedented rate of incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon in U.S. history. America’s prison population exploded largely as a result of the failed drug war policies of the last 40 years.
The report, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation, documents how the drug war has contributed to the skyrocketing U.S prison population and the staggering costs associated with mass incarceration. The report points out that U.S. incarceration rates are 5-10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other major democracies. The report also documents the staggering racial disparities in drug enforcement and incarceration.
The report calls for a significant reduction in rates of imprisonment and says that the rise in the U.S. prison population is “not serving the country well.” It concludes that in order to significantly lower prison rates, the U.S. should revise its drug enforcement and sentencing laws.
Even as bipartisan support for reducing incarceration grows across the country, I have two fears. The first is that we will succeed in reducing incarceration rates by 10 percent or so over the next few years, pat ourselves on the back, and think enough has been done. The second is that we will reduce incarceration by at least that much but increase by millions more the number of people on probation, parole and otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Transforming America from a maximum incarceration society to a maximum surveillance society will be a very mixed blessing.
Reducing incarceration involves more than just eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and harsh criminal penalties for nonviolent drug crimes. Removing marijuana from the criminal justice system through responsible regulation and taxation of legal markets would make a meaningful difference. So would ending the criminalization of drug use and possession of all drugs and making a true commitment to treating drug use and addiction as health issues.
Ultimately we need to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control as much as possible while protecting public safety and health.
It is significant that this report by the National Academy of Sciences, with its harsh criticism of America’s punitive incarceration binge, was funded by the Department of Justice’s research division. This is yet another indication that the Obama Administration, after having done little during its first term to reduce incarceration, is now firmly committed to doing all it can to reduce incarceration.
Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.