The United States, home of the world's largest prison population, both per capita and in real terms, could save $20 billion a year and cut that population in half by adopting a handful of systemic reforms, including decriminalizing drug possession, said a prestigious group of social scientists in a report released Monday. Noting that the US prison population had grown eightfold since 1970, steadily increasing whether crimes rates were going up or down, the report called US prisons a "self-fueling system."
The report, Unlocking America was released by the JFA Institute, a Washington, DC, research organization that studies issues related to corrections and penal populations. It was authored by eight prominent criminologists and James Austin, president of JFA.
The massive increase in imprisonment in the past four decades has had little impact on crime, but has imposed substantial costs on society -- and on offenders and their families, the report found. "Our contemporary laws and justice system practices exacerbate the crime problem, unnecessarily damage the lives of millions of people (and) waste tens of billions of dollars each year," it said.
Referring to President Bush's pardon of disgraced former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the report noted: "President Bush was right. A prison sentence for Lewis "Scooter" Libby was excessive -- so too was the long three year probation term. But while he was at it, President Bush should have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of Americans who each year have also received prison sentences for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to our society."
Those people are the victims of what the authors described as "three key myths" that drive criminal justice policy: That there are "career criminals" who can be identified and imprisoned to reduce crime, that tougher penalties are needed to protect the public from "dangerous criminals," and that tougher penalties will deter criminals. The authors devote extensive space to debunking those policy-driving misconceptions.
"The system is almost feeding on itself now. It takes years and years and years to get out of this system and we do not see any positive impact on the crime rates," Austin, a coauthor of the report, told a news conference.
A more humane, less expensive, and greatly reduced prison system could be achieved by enacting four fundamental reforms, the report concluded. They are:
- Reduce time served in prison.
- Eliminate the use of prison for parole or probation technical violators.
- Reduce the length of parole and probation supervision periods.
- Decriminalize "victimless" crimes, particularly those related to drug use and abuse.
Regarding decriminalizing drug offenses, the report noted: "In recent years, behaviors have been criminalized that are not dangerous and pose little if any threat to others. A large group of people are currently serving time for behaviors that have been criminalized to protect people from themselves. Their offenses involved the consent of all immediate parties to the transaction. Common examples in American history have included abortion, gambling, illicit sexual conduct that does not involve coercion (e.g., prostitution and, until recently, homosexual activity), and the sale and possession of recreational drugs. According to the US Department of Justice, approximately 30-40% of all current prison admissions involve crimes that have no direct or obvious victim other than the perpetrator. The drug category constitutes the largest offense category, with 31% of all prison admissions resulting from such crimes."
The drug war is futile and has nasty collateral consequences, the report concluded. "Every time a dealer is taken out of circulation by a prison sentence, a new dealer is drawn in by the lure of large profits. The prosecution and imprisonment of low-level traffickers has increased racial disparities, and is the largest factor contributing to the rapid rise in imprisonment rates for women. Dealers' use of violence to eliminate competition helps to sustain the myth linking drug use to violence. Notwithstanding our extraordinary effort to discourage the use and sale of illegal drugs, they remain widely available and widely used."
Better than a prison-filling policy of prohibition, would be a regulatory approach to drugs, the report said. "Regulatory approaches, such as are now used for drugs that are not illegal should be given serious consideration. The success of recent referenda in several states allowing medical use of marijuana suggests that the public opinion may be changing."
Public opinion would change even faster if more people read this report. It is a scathing indictment of a failed and inhumane set of criminal justice and drug policies. $20 billion a year in savings from adopting the suggested reforms is easily quantifiable; the reduction in human suffering by reducing the prison population in half, while equally significant, is not so easily measured.