Robert Lawson, former dean of the University of Kentucky College of Law, thinks America has an addiction problem.
Specifically, he told the Berea Rotary Club that he increasingly feels that the nation is addicted to incarceration.
In 1970, prior to launching its “war on crime” and “war on drugs,” the nation had just 110 people in jails and prisons per 100,000 people. Today, that number is 740 per 100,000.
That’s a 680% increase in the prison population.
Yet despite the nearly seven fold increase, our national crime rate is unchanged, Lawson said.
America’s huge prison population doesn’t make sense when compared to other developed nations. In Canada, England and most of Europe, the rate of incarceration is around 100 per 100,000. In the Japan, the rate is just 60 per 100,000. The worldwide rate is 140 per 100,000.
“We have 2.3 million people locked up,” Lawson said, compared to just 320,000 in 1970. But that’s not the full story.
Another six million people are under supervised probation, parole or home incarceration.
All this jailing comes at a huge cost, both in terms of money and humanity.
Since America was founded it has mostly followed the Old Testament rule of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Lawson said, “making sure the punishment fit the crime.”
Then, “we got angry at offenders in the late ’70s” and “distorted the penal code from one end to the other,” he said.
Lawson specifically thinks that non-violent offenses, such as drugs, carry sentences that are far too high and also thinks repeat offender laws are seriously flawed. Many states have laws that consider people persistent felons after three successive convictions, whereby life sentences could, and usually are, imposed.
For profit prisons also don’t help the situation and have even swayed judges with kickbacks and other incentives to put more people in jail.
As the world becomes more connected, the cost of over-jailing becomes enormous. The rise of background checks means that most people, once jailed, can never return to the workforce. This seriously impacts the economy and also leads to more crime due to lack of job opportunities.