America’s Prisons: The Worst National Disgrace

Anthony Gregory | The Independent Institute | October 8, 2013

The U.S. correctional system is the worst of America’s domestic disgraces. More people languish behind bars in the United States than in any other country, except perhaps China if we factor in the unknown numbers in labor camps. As the Economist summed it up:

America has around 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of its prisoners. Roughly one in every 107 American adults is behind bars, a rate nearly five times that of Britain, seven times that of France and 24 times that of India. Its prison population has more than tripled since 1980. The growth rate has been even faster in the federal prison system: from around 24,000—its level, more or less, from the 1940s until the early 1980s—to more than 219,000 today.

Much of the blame for this falls on the war on drugs, particularly the policies spearheaded by the Reagan administration, escalating through the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. But ending the drug war will not address the whole problem. Drug offenses account for about half of federal inmates but closer to a quarter of state inmates. Many others face punishment for non-violent property crimes. Even some of the truly vicious criminals, however, experience conditions that the state should never inflict on anybody.