With a record-setting 2 million people locked up in American jails and prisons, the United States has overtaken Russia and has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country.
Those are the latest dreary milestones resulting from a two-decade imprisonment boom that experts say has probably helped reduce crime but has also created ballooning costs and stark racial inequities.
Today the United States imprisons at a far greater rate not only than other developed Western nations do, but also than impoverished and authoritarian countries do
Overseas, U.S. imprisonment policy is widely seen as a blot on a society that prides itself on valuing liberty and just went to war to overturn Saddam Hussein's despotic rule in Iraq.
"Why, in the land of the free, should 2 million men, women and children be locked up?" asks Andrew Coyle, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of London and a leading authority on incarceration.
When he discusses crime and punishment with foreign colleagues, Coyle says, the United States is such an anomaly that it must often be left out of the discussion. "People say, 'Well, that's the United States.' They see the U.S. as standing entirely on its own," he says.
The latest statistics support that view. The new high of 2,019,234, announced by the Justice Department in April, underscores the extraordinary scale of imprisonment in the United States compared with that in most of the world.
During the 1990s, the United States and Russia vied for the dubious position of the highest incarceration rate on the planet.
But in the past few years, Russian authorities have carried out large-scale amnesties to ease crowding in disease-infested prisons, and the United States has emerged unchallenged into first place, at 702 prisoners per 100,000 population. Russia has 665 prisoners per 100,000.
Today the United States imprisons at a far greater rate not only than other developed Western nations do, but also than impoverished and authoritarian countries do.
On a per capita basis, according to the best available figures, the United States has three times more prisoners than Iran, four times more than Poland, five times more than Tanzania and seven times more than Germany. Maryland has more citizens in prison and jail (an estimated 35,200) than all of Canada (31,600), though Canada's population is six times greater.
"This is a pretty serious experiment we've been engaged in," says Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that supports alternatives to prison. "I don't think history will judge us kindly."
Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton University, says sentencing policies have had a glaringly disproportionate impact on black men. The Justice Department reports that one in eight black men in their 20s and early 30s were behind bars last year, compared with one in 63 white men. A black man has a one-in-three chance of going to prison, the department says.
For black male high school dropouts, Western says, the numbers are higher: 41 percent of black dropouts between ages 22 and 30 were locked up in 1999.
"I think this is one of the most important developments in race relations in the last 30 years," he says.
Some conservative analysts say that however regrettable the prison boom has been, it's working. It's no anomaly that the prison population is still rising despite a decade-long fall in the national crime rate, they say, but rather cause and effect.
"If you put someone in prison, you can be sure they're not going to rob you," says David B. Muhlhausen, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "Quality research shows that ... increasing incarceration decreases crime." Considering that there are still about 12 million serious crimes a year, Muhlhausen says, "maybe we're not incarcerating enough people."
Miscreants have been locked up for centuries, but today's prisons are the legacy of 19th-century reformers' desire to rehabilitate wrongdoers rather than punish them with whipping, dunking in water or being displayed in public stocks.
Quaker influence was behind the creation in 1829 of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, often considered the first modern American prison. It took a century and a half, until 1980, to reach 500,000 inmates. Then, in slightly more than 20 years, the prison and jail population grew by 1.5 million.
A major cause of the increase is the war on drugs. In 1980, says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, about 40,000 Americans were locked up solely for drug offenses. Now the number is 450,000, three-fourths of them black or Hispanic, although drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites.
"Drug abuse cuts across class and race," says Mauer, author of Race to Incarcerate. "But drug law enforcement is focused on low-income neighborhoods."
Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University, says locking up drug dealers does not necessarily reduce their number, because new recruits quickly take their place.
The well-established penal theory of "incapacitation," Blumstein says, dictates that "if a guy's committing 10 crimes a year and you lock him up for two years, you've prevented 20 crimes," Blumstein says. "That works for rape and robbery. But with drugs, there's a resilient market out there. The incarceration of drug offenders is largely an exercise in futility."
A second major reason for the rise in imprisonment is the politically popular shift to longer sentences with mandatory minimums, "three-strikes" laws and "truth-in-sentencing" measures to eliminate early parole.
"Since the 1970s, there's been a growing politicization of punishment policy," Blumstein says. "It's the 30-second sound bite of the prison door slamming, with the implicit promise, 'Vote for me and I'll slam the door.'" A tough stance on sentencing usually wins votes, whether or not it ultimately reduces crime.
Blumstein says the most rigorous recent studies suggest that about 25 percent of the drop in crime in recent years resulted from locking up more criminals. The rest resulted from other factors, among them the ebbing of the crack cocaine epidemic, changed policing strategies and the strong economy of the 1990s.
Now, with many state budgets in crisis, there are hints of a turnaround. Justice Department figures show that nine states reduced their prison populations last year, including Texas, Illinois and New York.
The number of prisoners was still rising in far more states, including Maryland, where the prison population - excluding jails - has more than tripled since 1980, to about 24,000.
But many governors and legislators are wondering whether they can afford to house more and more offenders at an average of $25,000 a year apiece.
"Even some of your more right-wing people are saying, 'Let's see what we can do to get some people out of prison to save some money,'" says Reginald A. Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and president of the association of state prison chiefs.
Like many prison professionals, Wilkinson says, "I always thought we locked up too many people." He says he's taking advantage of the budget squeeze to push for cheaper alternatives. Ohio's state prison population has fallen from its 1998 high of 49,000 to 45,000, and two prisons have been closed, he says.
In Maryland, there's no talk of closing prisons. Major expansions are planned or under way at North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland and Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore to add 396 beds to the crowded system.
"Maryland would seem to be stuck in neutral," says Judith A. Greene, a senior fellow at the Justice Policy Institute who has tracked the beginning of a turnaround in other states.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his secretary of public safety and correctional services, Mary Ann Saar, have said they want to use drug treatment and closer supervision of parolees to keep former offenders from returning to prison.
Saar's planned programs "all have the goal of getting people out of prison and keeping them out," says Mark A. Vernarelli, director of public information for the department of public safety. Still, he adds, given the steady flow of prisoners sent by the courts, "we maintain a constant vigil for land for new prisons."
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