A nation locked up

Thanks to a post from Liz Cox Barrett of the Columbia Journalism Review, I was made aware of a startling story in today’s New York Times. The story, titled “Inmate Count in U.S. dwarfs other nations“, reveals the startling news that although the U.S. is home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, it is also home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Talk about nation of freedom.

Times reporter Adam Liptak reports how American courts sentence offenders to prison time for crimes that many countries would not, and how our prisoners are kept in jail longer. As Liptak reports, experts from other countries have expressed shock at the stark figures.

As our cover story by Butch Warner from last week illustrates, though, incarceration is a reality for many Americans — a reality that takes years to adjust and recover from. Recovery and restitution is, of course, not always possible, and so many who enter the prison system — for whatever reason — do not emerge unchanged.

Liptak’s article is a fascinating examination of these startling statistics. Naturally, the article explores the devastating impact the failed, yet ongoing, “War on drugs” has had on our society and the severe strain it has placed on our jails and prisons, a strain that, in my opinion, has weakened both the courts and the prison system’s ability to handle and process crimes that are truly a threat to society.

The article also points to another fact, however, one critics of the penal system may not readily address: crime has dropped as incarceration rates have risen.

Nevertheless, it is unclear from the sources citing those statistics in Liptak’s article, or from Liptak’s otherwise great reporting, where that drop in crime occurred. It would be interesting to delve further into those statistics and determine whether violent crime has dropped in conjunction with a rise in incarceration for those crimes, or if the drop in the overall crime rate had more to do with punishment for lesser crimes.

Either way, the report raises important questions about how our society operates.

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