The United States leads the world at least in one way: Though it holds less than 5% of the world population, its prisons detain and punish 25% of the world's prisoners—currently totaling almost 2.5 million.
I doubt any American would stand up to brag about that; most would retreat into a corner, profoundly embarrassed. Even worse, the proportion of imprisoned Blacks and Hispanics is far out of balance. While whites account for about 64% of the U.S. male population, they comprise only 30% of the prisoners. And, though Blacks and Hispanics, combined, represent about 28% of the total U.S. male population, they account for over 56% of incarcerated Americans.
So, how did the U.S., as the decades-long undisputed world leader, become the sit-in-the-corner dunce of criminal justice—surpassing the worst regimes in its level of imprisonments? I suppose it's conceivable that the number of incarcerations is some sort of informal proof of just how well we do in enforcing our laws and meting-out penalties. But, the statistics are a red flag in our country's maturation process.
Our criminal justice system has not been one of rehabilitation—it hasn't even attempted to do that. Driven by the penal system's unquenchable thirst for dollars, it has developed the role of a vampire in American society. Prisons compete for dollars, and those owned or managed by for-profit prison corporations actually give quotas to their jurisdictions to ensure an endless supply of prisoners.
For the first 50 years of the 1900s, the U.S. criminal incarceration rate for males teetered at around 200 per 100,000 population. That was a percentage not so different from other modern, progressive democracies of that period. For most Americans, the chance of a prison sentence was virtually negligible; a so-called "law-abiding" man or woman had little chance of landing in our state and national penal system.
But, all that has changed. Incarcerations per capita soared since the mid-1970s and now approach 800 per 100,000, which makes even the worst governments of our world look like proverbial choir boys compared to our incarceration rates. When compared with the regimes we most despise—particularly China and Russia—American prisons are splitting at the seams. Sadly, it cannot be denied: The U.S. stands out among the greater nations of the world as likely the most screwed-up justice system today.
In keeping with its charter—to protect the civil rights and constitutional guarantees of Americans—the ACLU has been addressing the problems of our criminal justice for years. Recently, it sent out a mailing, launching the Redemption Campaign and seeking support to provide clemency to victims of our prison system.
Essentially, it looks to the governors of every state to use their clemency powers to free roughly 50,000 prisoners who are victims of an unfair, over-punitive, ever-expanding criminal justice system—and especially the victims of the draconian mandatory sentences that left so many without the hope of freedom.
Public support is squarely behind forgiveness and more equitable treatment, with surveys showing that 80% of all voters favor ending or shortening the sentences of certain groups of prisoners. According to a survey done by the ACLU, there is little party divide on the issue—with 80% of Democrats, 73% of Republicans, and 81% of independents in favor. Even crime victims, included in the poll, were 82% in support of clemency.
Here's who would benefit from the ACLU's Redemption Campaign:
People who, if convicted under current laws, would serve a lesser sentence than what they are currently serving
People convicted of drug distribution and possession offenses, regardless of underlying substance
People incarcerated for technical probation or parole violations
Older incarcerated people
The ACLU vows to encourage governors to use their clemency powers—particularly for those incarcerated for nonviolent crimes—using direct candidate engagement and voter education in the upcoming gubernatorial races. It notes, in its current drive, that governors have a responsibility to confront mass incarceration and racism in the criminal legal system—that there is a mass incarceration crisis, that governors hold the remedy for fixing it, and that they have a moral imperative to correct the mistakes of the past. It notes, in its literature, that, during this tough-on-crime era, that power has been largely neglected.
This should be a no-brainer for most of us, understanding that the justice system has been greatly complicated, over-expanded, racially skewed and unfairly administered. It is an outgrowth of unhealthy politics, overzealous prosecutors and a bureaucracy that constantly seeks to justify its existence and perpetuate the flow of dollars that feeds it. There are simply too many civil "servants" whose only function is to show that they're staying busy and earning their keep.
The best moral and ethical principles dictate a more forgiving treatment ofnonviolent offenders, aimed not at endless draconian punishment but at saving society's injured souls. The Redemption Campaign is something every moral, caring American can embrace and support.
The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog.