Economist slams U.S. incarceration regime

The Economist has a devastatingly powerful attack on the U.S.: Too many laws, too many prisoners. Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little

This is a must read and it should be used to hold lawmakers accountable.

As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100.

We have been through an orgy of legislators passing criminal penalties and prosecutors pushing for maximums, regardless of the costs.

Jim Felman, a defence lawyer in Tampa, Florida, says America is conducting “an experiment in imprisoning first-time non-violent offenders for periods of time previously reserved only for those who had killed someone”.

And the results of this experiment include enormous incarceration costs and enormous medical costs as we end up locking up more old people than ever before, as well as the increased danger of incarcerating innocents (as fear of being locked up for decades sometimes pushes innocent people to plead guilty).

Plus, sometimes people don’t even know that they broke the law!

There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. […] In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased.

“The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar.

If we’re supposed to obey the laws (which reasonably assumes that we should know what they are), then it seems to me that lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to pass any more criminal penalties unless they can recite all the ones that are already on the books.

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20 Responses to Economist slams U.S. incarceration regime

  1. allan420 says:

    ’bout time we start beating this theme over their heads…

  2. divadab says:

    The Economist has been anti-monarchy for over 100 years and Liz and the royal genetic trust are still titular heads of State (and Church).

    This thing will take a long time to undo and it may well get worse before it gets better. However, the deeper the recession caused by the greedy parasitical oligarchs goes on the less and less affordable it is to keep so many people locked up.

    Demographically, the ignorant scared sheeple are getting older and older and more and more demented and so things get a little more unpredictable. The peak of the baby boom is now between 45 and 55 (born between 1955 and 1965) and watch out when we start to feel the pinch. We’ll be around for a long time and we KNOW and can;t be fooled by the lying scum on TeeVee. Or, as in my case, we know we are susceptible to TV brainwashing and so don;t watch it.

    The other side of the Berlin wall will also fall.

  3. Madd Havik says:

    For the land of the freeeeeeeeeeeeee
    And the homeee of theeee braveeeeee! God bless America

  4. anyone arrested on a pot charge should demand a jury trial instead of plea-bargaining. make it cost them every goddamn dime you can

    • Pete says:

      That would be do it, Brian. We could shut down the system in no time. And in cases where the only charge is a “simple” pot charge, that would be smart — you might even get a sympathetic jury. Problem is, prosecutors have so many ways of piling on charges, that by the time they’ve added money laundering, conspiracy, manufacture, trafficking and everything else, defendants are facing a potentially ridiculous amount of time if they go forward with the jury trial and lose.

  5. claygooding says:

    Just something else for our legislators and drug warriors to explain while the are still trying to figure out why this is success.

  6. Hope says:

    Man! I’m just so happy to see sanity finally breaking out all over.

  7. Just me. says:

    I been saying for a long long time, We are lwaing our selves right out of the freedom we charish.

    The more laws you make..the more ways people will find around them..the more laws you gotta make to stop them from going around.. the more laws…… Its so stupid. How many laws can a man recite? You just go through your day hoping the odds dont strike you.

    Ive said before, make a list of laws of what we are allowed to do, it would be MUCH shorter and easy to remember, then watch masses of people start screaming about thier rights. They would more readily realise the imbalance.

  8. Voletear says:

    Each new crop of legislators wants to make it’s mark – make some law, show the folks back home they’re “doing something” to keep them safe from the great unwashed. If they can’t make a new law they have to change the existing and that means making it “tougher”.

    Maybe once we’ve destroyed the Drug War we’ll see some sanity return in other areas of criminal law.

  9. Chris says:

    And the average person just sees this as a good thing. The more people in prison, the more people that were caught doing something “wrong”. Nevermind that the thing they did didn’t hurt anyone else or their property. Morality must be enforced.

  10. jhelion says:

    this oft-quoted snippet seems applicable:
    “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible to live without breaking laws.”
    — Ayn Rand

  11. allan420 says:

    In Sheriff Bill Masters’ book, Drug War Addiction, he talks about finding an old Colorado law book in the walls of the old jail… and how small it was when compared to Colorado’s current 10,000 page paperweight.

  12. denmark says:

    “In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100.”

    One in 100. Brilliant, not! The law makers and oligarchies will pay dearly in karmic debt.

    You’re right Chris, the ordinary person doesn’t realize this is down right wrong and poor thinking.
    The incarceration rate in America is another issue that we have to continue bringing up.

  13. Drew says:

    If you haven’t seen the “Extras” on the Michael Moore “Sicko” DVD, I highly recommend it!

    There is a 5 to 10 minute section on prisons in Norway, or should I say prison. In fact it’s more like a college dormitory on an island. And the focus is not on punishment for their crimes, it’s on helping them figure out how to lead a respectable life.

    Go to your local library and reserve and check out that DVD. 🙂

  14. Shap says:

    So when the economist says big-business hating liberals and tough-on crime conservatives don’t they mean democrats and republicans respectively? I love when I turn on the TV and they’re discussing both sides of a public policy issue and the two people debating are almost always democrat and republican strategists as if they know what the fuck they’re talking about. I don’t give a fuck what democrat and republican strategists have to say about policy because they have both driven this country to the poor house. Thanks MSM for promoting the idea that the two parties have something knowledgable to say.

  15. claygooding says:

    Medical Marijuana on its Way to Washington, D.C.

    WASHINGTON — According to District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s medical marijuana law cleared a mandatory 30-day Congressional review period Monday night, after Congress declined to take action against a D.C. Council bill that allows the District to license between five and eight medical marijuana dispensaries. Norton made the announcement on Tuesday. The District will join 14 states across the country in having effective medical marijuana laws.

    And another crack apears in the wall!

  16. Tony Aroma says:

    Join in with me while I chant…


    Even those wannabe Russians and Chinese can’t touch us when it comes to locking people up. We rule!!!!!!

  17. @pete — yep, they would totally pile on as much as they coould think of in an attempt to intimidate anyone up for trial. but that’s really what we want.

    for every charge they add it means more resources expended on the jury trial. the smaller the amount of pot involved, the more likely the jury is to clearly see how absurd it all really is.

    and yes, of course some people will likely pay the price for having the nerve to defend their liberty and their rights to act upon themselves as they decide, and to partake of the abundance of natures providence as they like.

    we are at war — unfortunately that requires sacrifice. we can hope that some night they don’t kick in our doors and kill us, or we can take the fight right back at them and cram it down their throats.

  18. Drew says:

    Thanks Emma! I’ll have a look.

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