Human Rights Watch last week made headlines denouncing the United States for jailing more people per capita than any other country. The U.S. incarceration rate is 751 per 100,000 residents, the highest such rate in the world. Justice Department figures show that at the end of 2006, more than 2.25 million persons were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, an all-time high.
Behind all of the hoopla is the notion not that the U.S. has too many laws (a notion that I for one could get behind), but that the U.S. is locking up too many criminals. Human Rights Watch proposes the U.S. consider alternative criminal justice policies. Needless to say, the alternative to locking up criminals is not locking them up, which essentially means putting criminals back on the street where they are free to commit more crimes. This would certainly improve America's standing in the eyes of Human Rights Watch, but it would do nothing to makes our homes and streets safer.
So why are there so many felons in the U.S.? The liberal typically fishes out the old Jean Valjean excuse: that the poor are forced to steal bread to feed their starving families (or, in this case, sell drugs). Of course, poverty has never been a primary cause of high crime rates. If it were then the highest crime rates would have occurred during the Great Depression and not the 1980s. The HRW report does not note that crime rates in the U.S. have been falling since 1991, and if it were not for the extremely high homicide rates of a few urban areas largely controlled by drug gangs (Baltimore, Detroit, Washington, D.C.), the U.S. crime rates would be far below most of Western Europe and Canada. Indeed, in recent years the U.S. burglary rate is lower than that in Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. No doubt largely due to the fact that so many violent and repeat criminals remain behind bars.
The real cause of so many imprisoned Americans is the war on drugs and drug prohibition. According to a National Institute of Justice study, about 80 percent of U.S. crime is linked to the drug trade. In the United States, some 500,000 Americans are behind bars for relatively minor drug offenses, roughly the number of persons incarcerated for all crimes in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. Half of those sentenced to federal prison are there for drug offenses. Almost half of those in prison today are there for non-violent crimes. Nearly 1 in 3 women in prison today are serving sentences for drug-related crimes.
Human Rights Watch does not say that the U.S. is, like China or Russia, locking up political prisoners, or, as in Islamic countries, citizens who commit religious crimes. But it could be argued that, like Islamic countries, America is locking up felons for crimes against morality, which is essentially what are drug prohibition laws are, at least when applied to addicts and users.
FOR NOW THE AMERICAN PEOPLE are in favor of the War on Drugs. A slim majority still favors outlawing marijuana, though if the current trend continues the nation will soon be split. Marijuana, though, is not the problem. Hard drugs are. But even in the more liberal Canada only 8 percent are willing to legalize hard drugs like cocaine and meth (7 percent).
At the same time, most Americans say they wouldn't use hard drugs even if they were legal, and few seem to be using them illegally now. The 2006 NSDUH found 0.3 percent of the population had used heroin in the past month and 2.4 percent had used cocaine. Meanwhile, the Zogby poll reported that 99 percent of Americans wouldn't use hard drugs even if they were legalized.
Liberals regard the prison system as immoral, though it is no less immoral to release criminals to prey upon the working classes. While it is true most criminals are working class, it is equally true that most victims are working class. Therefore the best way to show compassion for the working class is to keep criminals locked up.
Only in the West and the U.S. in particular is there widespread guilt over imprisoning convicted criminals. Only in the West has there been decades of policies whereby criminals got off easy, served little time, were released with little punishment, and set back on the streets to commit more crime. The real news is that crime is down in the U.S., and it is because the criminals are locked up. Drug users, like it or not, are criminals. As long as the illegal drug business in the U.S. has revenues the equivalent of Texaco or ATT, it is absurd to think we can lock up all of the traffickers. For now, the U.S. people are demanding hard and soft drug users -- and not just drug traffickers -- be punished.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.
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