Why We Have a High Prison Population

high prison populationWe always hear that our high prison populations tops most other countries in the world.  Here are some new ideas that explain this from an essay by Charles Lane at the Washington Post:  http://www.startribune.com/combating-crime-most-hopeful-reforms-bloom-at-grass-roots/420124693/ 

What you’ll find are unique ideas that are different from the usual stories in the media.  Let’s see what he said.

  1.  It is true that the U.S. high prison population is higher than almost all other countries.  Various reasons have been given, after research, to explain this.  One of the most popular came from law professor Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow.  Professor Alexander said the high prison population—mostly African-American—came because of tough drug laws.  The laws discriminated against black people and the “war on drugs,” starting in the 1980s, caused black youth to be locked up more than whites.
  2. A new study, based on statistical research also, forms the basis of James Forman Jr’s book, Locking Up Our Own.  Using research by others, Mr. Forman says it’s not the drug crimes that have led to a high prison population.  In fact, if all drug offenders were released today we’d still have a high prison population.  That’s because most offenders in prison are there because they committed serious felonies like murder, rape, and armed robbery.  I can tell you after years of working as a Public Defender, 95%+ of clients I represented accused of serious crimes, pleaded guilty—because they were guilty.
  3. Mr. Forman points out that even in black communities where law enforcement and prosecutors are African-American, in a desperate effort to combat the high levels of crime, they, also, have been “tough on crime” and encouraged the imprisonment of black Americans.
  4. So why the high prison population?  Mr. Forman, and others, say it’s because the local prosecutors have the discretion to charge crimes or not.  At a time when crime rates nationally are falling, prosecutors are still charging more felony suspects with serious crimes that are punished with prison sentences.
  5. However, the good news is that these prosecutors are changing and considering alternative ways of dealing with serious crime.  For one thing, thank goodness, crime of all types is down.  These local prosecutors are more careful about charging crimes that contain prison sentences.

The other encouraging part of this pattern is that you can have an effect on the process.  Most prison sentences come from local courts.  Also, local prosecutors are elected by the public.  Become aware of these races and who the candidates are.  Check to see what they think about the high prison population.  Do they have a new message instead of the old “get tough on crime and lock them up?”


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