Date: Tue, 16 Mar 1999 22:04:03 -0600 (CST)
From: John V. Wilmerding <>
Subject: [PRISONACT] Prisons and crime rates: Neal Peirce Essay
Article: 57875
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

Sent by <> on the NJACT list:


Prisons and Crime Rates

Opinion piece by Neal R. Peirce, Philadelphia Enquirer, 15 March 1999

The violent crime rate in America continues to plummet. It’s off 21 percent since 1993, 7 percent in 1997 alone. Murders in our 10 largest cities declined 12 percent in 1998. Our streets are certifiably the safest they’ve been in a quarter century.

But there’s grim news, too, summarized by Eric Schlosser in a disturbing report—The Prison-Industrial Complex—in the Atlantic Monthly and corroborated in a report released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Some 1.8 million Americans are behind bars, in federal and state prisons and local jails. We are imprisoning more people than any other nation on earth, even Communist China. We’ve achieved the highest incarceration rate in human history for nonpolitical offenses.

Among our prisoners are dangerous folks we all want to see locked up: roughly 150,000 armed robbers, 125,000 murderers, 100,000 sex offenders.

But of the people now going to prison, Schlosser reports, less than a third have committed a violent crime. Drug-related cases predominate: Crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines or drug treatment—or not be considered crimes at all—in the United States now lead to a prison term, by far the most expensive form of punishment.

The United States actually had a rather steady 20th-century rate of imprisonment—about 110 inmates for every 100,000 people—until the 1970s. Then, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller suddenly suggested every illegal-drug dealer be punished with a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.

Across the country, politicians of both parties emulated Rockefeller, pushing multiple types of mandatory sentencing laws. As battalions of drug offenders got caught, our governments constructed some 1,000 new prisons in 20 years. Virtually all are now filled to the gills, many dangerously overcrowded.

California alone now has more inmates than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined. Our national incarceration rate is 445 per 100,000.

We’ve created a self-perpetuating prison boom, what Schlosser labels a prison-industrial complex as potent as the military-industrial complex of which President Dwight Eisenhower warned.

The partners in this new complex are politicians using fear of crime to garner votes, low-income rural areas clawing for new prisons as a cornerstone of economic development, private companies angling to share in the lucrative $35-billion-a-year prison industry, and government officials expanding their bureaucratic empires.

So now we must ask: Has the prison boom swept up so many criminals it’s responsible for dropping crime rates?

The answer: Of course. In part. Incarcerated offenders are safely (albeit temporarily) off the streets.

But much more is reducing crime. Added police, linked with an historic rise in community policing and computer-based crime-tracking and dispatch. The Brady bill and other measures reducing the flow of guns onto the streets. A decrease in the cocaine trade. Good economic times providing alternatives to crime.

So could we reduce crime without our obscene prison-building binge? Certainly. Prisons have become a revolving door for poor, highly dysfunctional, often illiterate drug abusers. Our governments are generally too chintzy to offer them drug treatment, behind bars or on the street.

Diverting some of the billions now going to the prison-industrial complex for drug treatment and other prevention efforts could start us on a much saner course.

Another gnawing issue is race. Black men are five times as likely to be arrested for drug offenses as whites (even though whites and blacks have similar abuse levels). The incarceration rate for black males was 3,096 per 100,000 in 1996, eight times the rate for white men (370 per 100,000) and more than double the rate for Hispanic men.

Roughly half our inmates are African American. One of every 14 black men is now in prison; one of four is imprisoned at some point. The new prisons they get sent to are overwhelmingly in white, rural areas, and their guards rural whites. Nationwide, 1.3 million black men—13 percent of black men - can’t even vote because of their criminal records.

So any idea of celebrating our declining crime rates because of high incarceration rates is reprehensible on three counts: the bestial nature of prison life, a race-based denial of equal rights and civil rights reminiscent of the old South Africa, and a bloated, overwhelmingly white prison-industrial complex making money off the whole.

The prison craze besmirches the name of America. In the best of economic times, in a nation dominant on the world stage, it’s more intolerable than ever. In community-based policing and neighborhood-oriented prevention programs, we’ve begun to build a better way. Now we need a vigorous political debate: how to build safer communities without incarcerating so many millions of our fellow citizens.