Wednesday, July 23, 2008
What happened to "the land of the free"?
In February, we reached an all-time high, with one out of 100 American adults incarcerated. Some groups are hit particularly hard; one out of every 15 African American adults were behind bars as of 2006.
In April, Adam Liptak started off a piece for the International Herald Tribune with two straightforward but powerful sentences: "The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners."
Despite all this, we've heard more political talk this election season about magazine covers and denounced pastors than we have about our plans for the more than 2 million Americans behind bars and the hundreds of thousands who will join them there in the next four years.
Maybe having millions locked up is an unfortunate necessity, an unavoidable fact of life in America as it has been constructed. But shouldn't we at least be talking about why we are, at best, vying for second place in the rankings of "most imprisoned" with China? Shouldn't we at least be talking on the national political level about the links, say, between education and imprisonment, between the failed war on drugs and our untenable incarceration rates?
Fact is, says Robert Weisberg, director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, "presidents don't have that much control over criminal justice. Almost all the action is at the state level."
Others are talking this time about the distinct possibility of a symbolic impact -- the first African-American president sending the message to millions of minority children that there truly is no limit to what they can accomplish.
"The United States has horrific incarceration rates, both with respect to the number of people we have in prison and the length of time we keep them there," said Elizabeth Rapaport, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law. "The effects on communities of color and in particular blacks are horrendous." [Mark Godsey]