The answer to this question is astounding: the U.S. incarcerates 25% of the world s prison population with only 7% of the world s population. This is a disturbing anamoly in the history of the world. Never before has a country been able to incarcerate so many people at such a high rate, two million and 1 in 127 respectively. These large numbers are incredibly difficult to think about in meaningful terms. But if you can imagine the population of Los Angeles in 1950; and if you then put all of those people in some type of cage, you are close to contemplating the immensity of the U.S. incarcerated population. The incredibly important and disturbing factor is how fast this occurred. Today s level of roughly two million was achieved mainly since 1980 when there was about 500,000 people incarcerated.
California illustrates how this growth has occurred over a relatively short period of time. Since 1977, the California Department of Correction s (CDC s) prison population has increased from 17,338 to 160,655, over a seven hundred percent increse. If you add the people in California s federal prisons and county jails, California leads the country with around 258,000 people in prison or jail. When we color these numbers, the problem becomes clearer: of the prison population, African Americans constitute almost one third while they represent 6% of the population. Said another way, 1,996 in every 100,000 African American Californians are imprisoned in comparison to the 242 whites in every 100,000. Latinos, proportionally, have suffered the brunt of California s prison boom. In 1977, 42% of the prison population was white and 22% was Latino. The two groups are approaching a full reversal because today Latinos represent 35% of the state prison population whereas whites now represent 29%. A total reversal appears likely if you look at the juvenile halls in Los Angeles County, where 1,100 of the 1,800 youth inside are Latino.
These unacceptable numbers and racial discrepancies are falsely legitimated through racist assumptions about who commits crime and na ve connections between rising incarceration rates and dropping crime rates. Because prison rates have risen and crime rates have dropped and because blacks do commit more crime than other groups (although not to a parallel degree of black incarceration rates) prison apologists such as George Bush can view the United States role as world-incarceration leader as unfortunate but necessary. The fact is, however, that between 1991 and 1998, on average, states with higher increases in incarceration had relatively lower decreases in crime than those states with lesser increases in incarceration. In other words, greater incarceration rates tend to yield lower decreases in crime rates. So if incarceration does reduce crime, at a certain level a point of diminishing returns is reached.
So while increased incarceration is not a simple formula for decreased crime, what about the conclusion that the United States is a crime ridden country, and that we therefore are bound to have high incarceration rates, albeit with some problems? The problem with this assumption is that United States is not the crime ridden country people presume it to be or our prison population suggests. In comparison to other countries, the U.S. is off-the charts in terms of violence and average with non-violent crime. But our incarceration rates far exceed the U.S. excess in violence. The U.S. rate of 1 in 137 is practically incomprable to the rate of incarceration in other G7 countries, 1 in 1000. Yet, the non-violent crime rates are practically the same between these countries, and over half of the U.S. prisoner population is non-violent. This means that to a large extent the U.S. has an abnormal incarceration process, and not an abnormal crime problem.
In his book, Crime Is Not The Problem, Zimmring exerts a great deal of effort doing calculations that show the U.S. a violence problem. He then looks at how political rheotirc conflates this with a crime problem, which leads to a major criminal justice problem. Media and politicians sensationalize violent crime as a validation for criminal justice policeis that attack non-violent crime. Zimring argues:
Expanding punishment resources [has] more effect on cases of marginal seriousness rather than those that provoke the greatest degree of citizen fear. The result is that when fear of lethal violence is translated into a general campaign against crime, the major share of extra resources will be directed at nonviolent behavior. (Zimmring 17)
This has been partially true in California. While draconian legislation has been driven to a large extent by public fear of violent-crimes, mostly non-violent offenders have felt the impact of these new laws. In 1977, 63% of male prisoners in California were imprisoned for violent crime, and the violent crime rate was at 683 per 100,000; by 1992, however, 45% of male prisoners in California were imprisoned for violent crime, but the violent crime rate had climbed to 1,103 per 100,000. What this means is that as violent crime was rising, the percentage of those serving time for violent crime was decreasing. To a huge extent, this reversal was facilitated by the creation of new laws and newly enforced laws. In others words, the drug war came. In California in 1981, the incarceration rate for drugs was just 6%, and today it is about 28%. Thus, the decrease in the percentage of violent offenders came mostly with the increase of drug offenders, and this process was fueled by a sensationlized fear of drugs, not violent crime. This means that the electorate is not quite as fooled as Zimmring thinks, and that people quite knowingly went about creating a war on drugs and some of the people who use them.
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