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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

‘Governing Through Crime’

Rehearsing again the grim statistics of American crime and punishment is depressing. The Pew Center on the States reminds us that one in every hundred American is behind bars, a rate of incarceration far greater than in other developed countries. Incarceration is notably skewed along racial lines — one in nine black men aged 20 to 34 is serving time, as is one in 36 adult Hispanic men. Recent reports by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch show that, despite roughly equal rates of illegal drug use by race, black men are 12 times more likely than white men to be imprisoned for it. Although African-Americans make up 12 percent of the American population, they make up over 40 percent of the jail and prison populations.

Much of growth of the prison population can be traced to drug policy and the implantation of that policy. Between 1980 and 2006, drug arrests increased from 580,000 to 1.85 million, with 80 percent of those arrests for possession rather than sale. Of those arrested for possession, just under half were arrested for the possession of marijuana.

The costs of the American penal system are astonishing. In the past 20 years, state prison costs have jumped from about $12 billion to just under $50 billion. At current projections, they are slated to grow to $75 billion by 2011. On average, almost 7 percent of state budgets now goes to support their penal systems. This growth in spending has crowded out other priorities. [Mark Godsey]

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