The United States houses a mere 5 percent of the world’s population but a whopping 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Currently, more than 1 in 100 American adults is serving time in jail or prison.
While crime rates have continued to decrease over the last two decades, incarceration rates have increased. Why is this?
Three strike laws and mandatory life sentences for drug offenses sound good on paper and curry favor with voters who are led to believe that homicidal maniacs are lurking around every corner. The truth is that most victims of violent crimes know their attackers.
Stranger on stranger violence is rare. And regardless of what CSI and other crime dramas tell us, drug addicts rarely pose a danger to strangers.
According to the Bureau of Prisons, 52% of inmates are doing time for drug related offenses. Surprisingly, only 3% of the prison population is in for homicide, and violent crimes such as aggravated assault and kidnapping. Today, a few ounces of an illegal substance can land a person in prison for twenty to life. The overwhelming number of prisoners are low-level offenders or drug addicts who were caught carrying for their own use.
I certainly don’t condone drug use but it seems illogical to send a poor schmuck with a serious addiction to the big house for life. Our prisons are maxed out, filled to the brim. In order to make room for these petty drug users, other inmates are granted early release—inmates that may very well have committed serous crimes.
The state promises not to release convicted violent offenders or sex offenders. It’s an easy promise to keep considering the fact that more than 95% of cases are plea bargained down to lesser charges. What this means is that a rapist may be allowed to plead guilty to simple assault, saving the state the cost of bringing him to trial. That rapist avoids being labeled a sex offender and in the eyes of the law is guilty only of assault and thus eligible for release in order to make room for the local loser who got caught freebasing in his apartment.
I don’t know about you but I’d much rather have the drug addict out on the street and the violent offender who used the system to his advantage behind bars where he belongs.
For more information on the problem with mandatory drug laws, please check out the Human Rights Watch website < http://www.hrw.org/legacy/campaigns/drugs/ny-drugs.htm >.
Juré Fiorillo is a criminologist and co-author of True Stories of Law & Order and True Stories of Law & Order: SVU. Her forthcoming book Great Bastards of History is due out in January 2010. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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