Editorial: Shocking Incrementalism 7/28/00

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David Borden, Executive Director, borden@drcnet.org

It is shocking that 4 1/2 million Americans are on probation or parole. Surely the extraordinary number of people under correctional control in our country -- over 6 1/2 million, including the prisoners -- and the extraordinary cost of confining or monitoring them, will provoke a rethinking of our "tough on crime" policies and lead to a more intelligent, more targeted, more just way of dealing with offenders -- particularly nonviolent drug offenders, who number nearly a fourth of the above totals.

Then again, it was shocking last February when the incarcerated population -- prisons and jails combined -- hit two million. Now, it still gets some ink, some more people have gotten involved as a result of it, but by and large it's not the story of the day on the TV screens, radios and newspaper headlines across this country.

The biggest shocker I remember came out five years ago, when the Sentencing Project released its "Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later" report, finding that on any given day, 1 in 3 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under the control of the criminal justice system, either prison, jail, probation or parole.

Then again, it was probably quite shocking when they issued their first report on the subject, in 1990, "Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System: A Growing National Problem." That report found that 1 in 4 black men in that age group were under criminal justice supervision.

I asked Marc Mauer, author of the 1990 and coauthor of the 1995 report, if they were planning to do another follow-up study, since another five years had passed. He said they were thinking about it, but "how bad do the numbers have to get" before something is done about it?

Maybe it's not how bad the numbers get, but how suddenly. The fact that the number of nonviolent drug offenders increased 11-fold between 1980 and 1997, and now number over 458,000, is surprising, when you think about it. But suppose that instead of imprisoning these people slowly, over the course of 17 years, they'd rounded them up all at once? Say they put those 400,000+ people behind bars in the space of a week, or a month -- or say a half a year, to give their lawyers time to prepare for trial -- if there even were that many lawyers back then?

I dare say that that would have shocked the nation, dominated the talk shows and the editorial pages for months, maybe even sparked mass demonstrations of the kind not seen since the heyday of the civil rights movement.

Yet the wisdom, justice, or bare sanity of such a large but unsuccessful incarceration program, is not measure by how many years is spent building it. If it would have been shocking or wrong to suddenly imprison 400,000 drug offenders all at once in 1980, why would it be any better to have such vast numbers in prison now? Would it be qualitatively different from, say, suddenly incarcerating yet another 450,000 nonviolent drug offenders during the remainder of the summer?

It is because of the drug war's slow, creeping growth that these terrible numbers, these terrible misdeeds committed in the name of protecting our children, can be tolerated by the great mass of the American public: the over-incarceration of our citizenry, the institutionalization of drug testing, the abuse of property and privacy rights, extraordinary mandatory minimum sentences that throw away the lives of countless people who should have gotten a second chance, if they should ever have been bothered at all.

Over time, with many more such reports and constant talking and advocating and agitating, Americans will one day realize the mistake they've slowly made. Then, we hope, this self-inflicted tragedy of our time will come to an end.

-- END --
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Issue #147, 7/28/00 Corrections System Continues to Bloat With 458,000 Drug War Prisoners: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Justice Policy Institute Crunch the Numbers in Separate Reports | Supreme Court Rules, Federal Sentencing Structures Tremble | See You in Philly: Shadow Convention Set to Convene Sunday | Forbes Exposes McCaffrey's Crusade Against "Cheech and Chong Medicine" | Drug Policy Letter Issue Focuses on Drug War Prisoners, DRCNet Launches New Prison/Incarceration Info List | Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other: Important Amendments to Anti-Methamphetamine Act | Newsbrief: Recalcitrant Feds to Appeal Oakland Marijuana Club Decision | Liar of the Week | Media Scan: salon.com, Washington Post | AlertS: Colombia, Mandatory Minimums, California, New York, Washington | HEA Campaign | Event Calendar | Editorial: Shocking Incrementalism
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