Matt Welch’s editor’s note introducing the Reason special issue on the criminal justice system is now available online.
America has one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. More than 7 million people are under correctional supervision in this country. These staggering statistics—no other country comes close in percentage terms, let alone raw numbers—have serious consequences. For one thing, there is the fiscal cost: The corrections system lags only Medicaid in government spending growth on the state level. Yet most prisons are overcrowded, underserviced, and exponentially more dangerous than any decent society should tolerate.
Worse are the cascading social effects, some of which you might not initially expect. Although prison is overwhelmingly the province of men, black women in America’s inner cities have some of the highest HIV infection rates in the developed world. Why? Because their male partners contracted the virus behind bars, via consensual sex or rape, often going undiagnosed while serving out their terms.
Very few in our political and media classes are familiar with the communities most ravaged by crime and punishment. No politician ever lost an election by alienating the ex-con vote (in no small part because in a dozen states, ex-felons who have completed parole are still permanently barred from voting). It is no accident that the people most likely to languish behind bars—poor minorities, sex offenders, illegal immigrants—tend to be among the most reviled groups in American society.
To the extent that we even think about our prison population bomb, we have allowed ourselves to believe it’s an acceptable price to pay for the recent reduction in crime. But the rates of incarceration and crime aren’t so easily correlated, let alone quantified in terms of cause and effect. And the notion that we are keeping dangerous predators off the streets is belied by the fact that an estimated 1 million prisoners in the U.S. are serving time for nonviolent offenses, predominantly related to drugs.
The drug war is a leading supplier to the prison industry and the biggest inspiration for new ways to circumvent the Fourth Amendment. More than 800,000 people are still arrested each year for marijuana alone, despite the widespread misconception that pot has been largely decriminalized, and despite the fact that close to half of all Americans by now have smoked it, and more than half, by some surveys, favor legalizing it. We can thank the drug war for “stop-and-frisk” harassment of young New Yorkers, for the transfer of military equipment and tactics to local police departments, for wrong-door SWAT raids that kill innocents, for an entire shadow economy of dubious jailhouse snitching and back-room sentence reductions. Vanishingly few public officials even pretend anymore that the drug war can somehow be “won.”
Meanwhile, government at every level continues to run out of money. So conditions are becoming increasingly ripe for a Johnsonian cost-benefit analysis to conclude that drug prohibition needs to go the way of alcohol prohibition. It remains my hope, even my conviction, that these hardheaded arguments will reverse this evil policy during the next decade or two.