To Sum It Up: America Behind Bars

June 28, 2007

Dan Belnap

No-so-much the land of the free.
-by Dan Belnap
belnap_sumitup.jpgAmericans like to think of themselves as the freest people in the world, but per capita Americans are more likely than anyone else to be in prison.

Currently in the United States, more than 2.2 million people are behind bars. About two-thirds are in state and federal prisons and one-third in local jails. Between June 2004 and June 2005, the nation's jailed population grew by 2.6% – 1,085 new inmates every week. In fact, this increase represents a record 33rd continuous year of  annual increases in America's prison population. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world at one in 136 people, five to eight times higher than in Canada or Western Europe.

This decades-long increase has occurred even though crime rates have steadily fallen since 1991 to levels last seen in the 1960s. This suggests that the increase is due primarily to changes in sentencing policy -measures like "three-strikes," mandatory minimums, and decreasing parole rates. According to the Sentencing Project, a research and reform advocacy group, from 1995 to 2001 the average time served in prison grew by 30%.

If recent rates remain unchanged, 6.6% of all people in this country will spend part of their lives incarcerated. For black males the odds of spending time in jail are much higher at 32%; for Hispanic males the odds are 17%; and for white males 5.9%. African American drug offenders are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white offenders, and Hispanic drug offenders are 40% more likely. African Americans on average serve 57.2 months in prison for drug offenses, almost as much as the 58.8 months the average white prisoner serves for violent offenses.

In the 25-29 years old age group, 8.1% of black men (about 1 in 13) are currently incarcerated, along with 2.6 % of Hispanic men and 1.1% of white men.

Even after prisoners are released after serving their time, their criminal records continue to haunt them. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have currently or permanently lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction. Many former convicts have difficulty finding work or housing because of their records. In many states, persons convicted of drug felonies face lifetime ineligibility for welfare benefits such as cash assistance and food stamps. Federal law forbids any student convicted of a drug-related offense from receiving educational grants or loans. No other offense, including violent crime, results in the automatic denial of financial aid eligibility.

Families also suffer. More than half of the people in prison are parents, and more than 10 million children have a parent who was imprisoned at some point in the child's life. Currently, 1.5 million children have a parent in jail, including 1 in 14 black children.

We need prison reform in this country that respects the rights of individuals, families and communities. "Out of sight, out of mind" is the wrong approach to dealing with criminal behavior.

Dan Belnap is a Utah native who currently works on Medicaid policy for a national healthcare policy think tank in Washington, DC.