Public Policy

The statistics are stark, but by now familiar: the United States has less than 5% of the world’s people, yet accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners; the incarceration rate in the United States is seven times higher than the rate in Western Europe; more than 1 in 100 adults are behind bars today. This extraordinary level of imprisonment is an embarrassment for the nation as a whole, but the concentrated, mass incarceration of African-Americans also has serious public safety consequences for those who live in the communities most disproportionately affected by imprisonment.

The rate of incarceration for African-Americans has always been higher than the national average. The steady climb in the rate of incarceration for young black men over the last 30 years has resulted in such a concentration of imprisonment in low-income African-American communities that sending those who commit crimes to prison now does more harm than good in those neighborhoods. Researchers confirm that the cumulative effects of mass incarceration – weakened social bonds, distrust of police, and compromised economic opportunities – have reached a tipping point, resulting in an increase rather than a decrease in crime.

Public safety also suffers when the financial costs of supporting such a high level of incarceration compromises the ability of local communities to provide a safety net for its most vulnerable residents. We spend nearly $50 billion a year operating prisons, money that could be put to better use strengthening mental health treatment networks, drug treatment programs, and support for parents of at-risk children.

Politicians have exploited fear of crime for political gain, offering simple solutions for complex problems. While using rhetoric about "predators," "super predators," "terrorists," "child sexual predators," and "criminal aliens," they have brought about longer prison terms and have made the criminal justice system our primary social program, siphoning off resources that could be better spent on programs for neglected and abused children, mental health care, drug treatment, domestic violence programs, and other services that provide real solutions to crime.

SCHR proposes constructive, humane, non-violent approaches to the causes of crimes. Children must be provided education, opportunity and hope, but far too many are not receiving any of the three and are being formally prosecuted for minor infractions that could be handled at school or in the community. Sending children to college and to productive jobs should be society's highest priority, while sending them to juvenile institutions should be the absolute last resort. Much of the crime in our society is related to alcohol, drugs, gambling and other addictions, but there are few treatment programs to help people overcome their addictions. Such programs must be provided to help people live useful and productive lives.

Based on fear and gross generalizations, society gives up on people – many of whom are struggling to overcome huge disadvantages in their lives – when they commit crimes early in their lives. But many offenders are not beyond redemption. With the proper intervention, guidance and opportunities, they can live within the law, be good workers, parents, family members and responsible members of their communities. Unfortunately, many of our current policies – criminalization of addiction, oppressive restrictions on sex offenders and mass incarceration – instead of facilitating rehabilitation are obstacles to it. These policies are enormously expensive, counterproductive and often cruel.