“The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners—we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any country on Earth,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice in a recent CBS News story.
According to CBS, there are “2.4 million people behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40 percent.” How did this happen? CBS reports that the explosion in incarceration began following tougher sentencing policies in the early 1970s in response to urban violence and increased drug use. The politicians learned then that “tough on crime” rhetoric won elections, and they haven’t stopped since. Our country’s epidemic of incarceration costs taxpayers a staggering $63.4 billion a year.
The high economic and human costs of mass incarceration reveal an America that in the most literal ways isn’t living up to its values of freedom and equality. Last June was the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs. The Drug Policy Alliance reports that 1,638,846 people were arrested on nonviolent drug charges in the U.S. in 2010—a law enforcement practice that disproportionately targets racial and ethnic minorities despite the fact that whites use drugs at equal or greater rates. According to the Sentencing Project, over 60 percent of those incarcerated are racial and ethnic minorities, and studies reveal that nearly three out of four people incarcerated for drug possession are African-American. This extreme racial disparity suggests to some that the epidemic of incarceration is the singular civil rights issue of our day.
Can we really call ourselves the home of the free when we lock up more people than any other country in the world? Does punishment meted out so unevenly make a mockery of the concept of equal justice?