The Economist has a three-part series on criminal justice in America. All US citizens would do well to read this, especially those with previous brushes with the law. Part 1, part 2 and part 3.
One only has to look at the incarceration rates per 100,000 population to see that we lead the world, by a large margin, in locking our own citizens up. Our rate is 716 per 100,000. That means, for every 100,000 people in the US there are 716 people in prison. Let’s look at Spain, a country in severe economic straights and one of the largest in Europe. Their rate is 149 people per 100,000. We incarcerate 4.8 times as many people as Spain. I tried to pick a “fair” comparison. I could have chosen Iceland with a rate of 47. That makes our rate 15.2 times higher.
No one knows how many non-violent criminals are serving life without parole in America, but there are at least 3,278 people who will spend the rest of their life in prison for something non-violent. The drug crimes that trigger life without parole can be as trivial as owning a crack pipe or a bottle cap with a trace of heroin on it. The non-drug crimes can be just as ludicrous: trying to cash a stolen check; siphoning gas from a truck; threatening a cop while handcuffed.
And then, there’s this:
Clarence Aaron had no rap sheet: he is among the one-fifth of non-violent life-without-parolers in the federal system serving time for a first offence. While a student at Southern University in Louisiana, he acted as a middleman in a drug deal. He neither bought nor sold the drugs in question, but when arrested he refused to testify against his co-conspirators. They did not return the favour. Consequently, all but one of them have been released from prison (the last is due out next year), while he is almost 20 years into a life sentence.
Like most prisoners serving life for non-violent crimes, Mr Aaron is black. Racial disparities among non-violent “whole-lifers” exceed even those of the prison system itself. Among federal prisoners, blacks are 20 times more likely to receive such sentences: they are 65% of the national total, compared with 18% for whites and 16% for Latinos. In some states the numbers are yet more skewed: blacks are 91% of non-violent life-without-parole prisoners in Louisiana, 79% in Mississippi and 68% in South Carolina.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the deep south, where racism is more alive and well than anywhere else in the US, is disproportionately using life without parole against blacks.
Incarcerating people is expensive, but the human cost is much higher. Locking someone up for the rest of their life for a non-violent crime is inhumane. It destroys lives, and not just those of the incarcerated, but their families. We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and decide if we want to continue on this path. If we do, I don’t think history will judge us kindly.
UPDATE: yet another example of extreme sentencing.