These critics share a logic: ineffective drug laws produce little other than an expanding, expensive penal system. A graphic
produced by the American Civil Liberties Union presents data of the U.S. prison system, and plainly states, “the war on drugs has helped make the U.S. the world’s largest incarcerator.”
The role and reality of prisons in America is now being contested. Following the Supreme Court ruling on California, other states’ penal systems are under examination. Efforts to ease overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons, which have hovered near 14o percent capacity for several months, have fallen short of expectations
. The Omaha World-Spectator
reports that officials in Nebraska hope to see more inmates released on parole:
Bob Houston, state corrections director, remains confident his department can reach a goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 545 inmates, or about 12 percent, over the next two years.
But does releasing convicts from prison imperil public safety? Data from the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics show that of 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states, two-thirds were back in jail in less than three years
. Recidivism rates were almost twice as high for those arrested for robbery, larceny, auto theft and other property crimes. A recent study in the Boston Globe
found more than a third of dangerous Massachusetts felons sentenced to life in prison and released on parole wound up back in jail
in less than three years.
The recidivism rate is one of the key criticisms of the penal system, but it’s by no means the only one. In a Washington Post
op-ed, Marc Mauer and David Cole published “Five Myths”
about prisons and prisoners in the U.S., pointing out failures of penal justice in the U.S.
Their primary contention: that high incarceration rates haven’t lowered crime. Crime rates have dropped precipitously in the U.S. in the last two decades, in tandem with the ballooning number of convicts behind bars. But Mauer and Cole say that the correlation isn’t causal:
In Canada, for example, violent crime declined in the 1990s almost as much as it did in the United States. Yet, Canada’s prison population dropped during this time, and its per capita incarceration rate is about one-seventh that of the United States.
They point to research that shows, at most, incarceration accounted for a quarter of the decline in crime. What caused the rest of the drop?
Maybe it’s the economy, stupid. Over the last two decades, Americans enjoyed increasing prosperity, especially in the decade of the 1990’s when employment expanded, government revenues rose and GDP climbed higher. The drop in crime across the country turned previously-perceived dangerous cities like New York into tourist Meccas and capitals of residential revitalization.
But then the economy tanked in 2008. The recovery has been slow and painful, and unemployment still hovers at agonizingly high levels, yet crime rates have remained low. “Steady Decline in Crime Baffles Experts,” read a piece
in the New York Times.
But that depends on which experts you ask. It’s simplistic and naive to assume crime rates “rise and fall in lock-step with poverty rates and unemployment,” says Andrew Karmen, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Such an obvious direct relationship has never been claimed by criminologists,” Karmen wrote in an e-mail. He’s the author of “New York Murder Mystery,”
a book attempting to uncover the true reasons behind the city’s dramatic drop in crime. A sizeable chunk of the book criticizes claims of credit made by the city’s police department, and boasts by former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The streets of some U.S. cities are safer than they’ve been in forty years, since the declaration of the “war on drugs,” but the reason for that remains a puzzle.
Writing in Reason Magazine,
policy analyst and investigative journalist Radley Balko
looks at the theories and data, and concludes:
[i]t could be that we have less crime now not because of any brilliant anti-crime initiatives dreamed up by academics and politicians but because civil society has quietly churned out benefits independent of those policies.
Echoing the critiques of Neill Franklin and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Balko says, “maybe the real lesson of the last two decades is that anti-crime policies at best have little effect on the crime rate. When you factor in the drug war, they may make it worse.”
But despite the essays, letters and critiques challenging the U.S. criminal justice system, there aren’t any signs of change at the government level. The closest direct exchange on the subject came when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his love for the critically-acclaimed HBO crime drama “The Wire,” a five-season epic about drugs, enforcement and the urban ghetto that ended in 2008. Holder publicly asked
the show’s creator to produce another season or a movie.
David Simon, the creator, retorted that he’d do so
if the Department of Justice would, in exchange, “address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive, and dehumanizing drug prohibition.”
No word yet from Holder on whether a deal has been struck.