Punishment & Prison

The United States holds a world record that no other country wants to take away: it has the highest number of prisoners, both in terms of percentage of the population (3%) and in terms of the overall number of persons in prison or jail (2,000,000+).  In fact, the United States has 25% of the world's prisoners, but only 5% of its population.  The United States is literally off the charts in comparison with other countries around the world.  Many individual states in the United States have a higher percentage as the prison/jail population than any country in the world. 

Moreover, this is a very expensive system.  Taxpayers bear a significant burden of the cost, but the cost to society does not end there.  Serving time radically reduces an individual's subsequent earning power, and the absense of the inmate (usually male) from the home has profound enconomic and familial impact, often leaving one parent to raise children alone. 

Nor is it clear that society is getting its money's worth.  True, violent crime has gone down, but even after intensive study, it is unclear what the actual causes of this decease were. (There was a corresponding global decrease in crime as the same time.)  Recividism--released convicts reoffending and returning to prison--continues to be high. Within three years of release, about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested.

These high rates of imprisonment are largely the result of the War on Drugs (the criminalization of drug-related activities) and the Three Strikes laws, which mandated long prison terms for third-time offenders.  The length of time someone is sentenced to serve may vary greatly, not only from state to state but also from county to county, depending on the prosecutor.

Indeed, prison all too often seems to be a post-graduate school for criminality--although you only get to study with those who have been caught.  Although there are certainly exceptions whoare all the more admirable because they have overcome staggering odds against them, most prisoners emerge from prison more firmly entranched in their ways and all too inclined to pick up where they left off.