The United States leads the world in incarceration rates of its citizens. Is America really home of the free?
When Americans boast about what makes their country so attractive, they often point out the incredible life and work opportunities available across this vast land, which are undeniably numerous, and the broad freedoms enjoyed by its everyday citizens. “Terrorists and detractors envy, and hate us for our freedom,” is a common slogan (or a derivative thereof) chanted by patriots and politicians alike. These national cheerleaders might very well be right, yet they often neglect another important fact that could cause jealousy among the despots, haters and militant radicals out there, which is, of course, our phenomenal rate of incarceration.
The United States locks away more of its citizens, per capita and in simple, raw numbers, than any other country on the planet. We’re number one with a bullet, or slamming prison door. Eat your hearts out, evil dictators.
If you think our incarceration rate, which clocks in at 716 souls for every 100,000 citizens, is a reeking paradox when held up against our civil liberties, you’re absolutely right. Let’s take a look at China, a regular target (although less so these days, now that they’re our bankers) of American criticism over that nation’s human rights abuses. China only imprisons around 118 people for every 100,000 of its residents. America’s total prison population is well over 2 million, while China, with a significantly larger civilian population (1.34 billion Chinese to 315 million Americans), living under much tighter governmental controls, has just over 1.5 million inmates locked away.
What this means is that an American, statistically speaking, has a far greater chance of having his or her precious freedom snatched away than a Chinese, Egyptian, Russian or Ukrainian citizen has, and quite likely (although figures are hard to verify) a resident of that bastion of personal freedom, North Korea. If you happen to be black, male and American, your chances of going to prison increase dramatically (six times the rate of whites), although thankfully that figure has fallen in recent years. While these high rates of detention might signify some kind of “prison utopia” for the people running and profiting from the prison industry, it’s bad news for taxpayers (30,000 dollars or so spent per inmate, per year), and society as a whole.
For a nation that prides itself on its liberty, the ability of a government to take away that liberty for years and decades, based upon harsh minimum sentencing laws, should not be abided. Regardless if you agree or disagree with certain laws, especially those concerning the import, distribution and manufacture (methamphetamines) of prohibited pharmaceutical substances and plants (the domestic “war on drugs”), the amount of prison time handed down for violations of these laws has gone from a hard-hitting tool designed to curb crime rates, to a crime in itself.
If society collectively deems an activity or substance illegal, then a fine, compulsory rehabilitation or even limited jail time should be the punishment for breaking that law, yet when mandatory minimums and ultra tough drug sentencing laws lead to the creation of the world’s most extensive penal system, which amounts to a limitation on human rights, something is seriously out of balance.
Armed robbers, killers and serial rapists need to be locked up for lengthy periods of time, without a doubt. Other criminals pose less of an ongoing risk to society. If the vacuum left by jailing them (street-level dope slingers, for example) is quickly and easily filled, thus offsetting the community’s need for and the cost of severe prison sentences, valuable time and resources are wasted, not to mention the life that sits waiting, rotting behind bars.
I’m not suggesting drug crimes should be ignored, but “toughness” all around, for every offense, regardless of economic and social circumstance, has now launched the United States into an extremely awkward position. How can we continue to claim that we’re one of the most open societies on Earth, while still reserving the right to take away the freedom of our citizens for unreasonable lengths of time, at a faster rate and on a larger scale than any dictator, totalitarian government or military junta elsewhere could ever hope to match?
People want to take pride in their community, and brag that their city, sports team, state or nation is “number one” in something, yet when it comes to holding fellow human beings in cages for years on end, perhaps we can afford to slide down in the global rankings a bit, and let someone else take the lead. We don’t always have to be number one.
Image credit: ctj71081/Flickr