The Will To Punish

The U.S. has the most prisoners and the highest jailing rate of any country — the insanity must stop.


Millions in the Slammer: We Must Reverse America’s Zeal to Incarcerate
By Nomi Prins

The movie Atonement is a heart-breaking love-story, a historical WWII saga. Without giving away the ending, which must be seen to be adequately felt, it tells the tale of two lovers’ lives irrevocably changed by false testimony against one of them — for a crime he did not commit. Thus, it’s also a condemnation of unreliable witnesses, the willingness of people to believe the worst, particularly of those in a lower economic-class, and the havoc that a false accusation and conviction can wreak upon human life. It’s a film and message that every judge, jury member, and prosecutor should see and consider before convicting or sentencing anyone accused of a crime.

On December 10th, the United States Supreme Court voted 7-2 to recognize a gross injustice with respect to sentencing guidelines which disproportionately penalize those convicted of crack versus cocaine related crimes. The disparity gives equal punishment to a person caught with 5 grams of crack (a poor person’s cocaine) and one caught with 500 grams of coke (a drug dealer’s amount). In their validation of a federal district judge’s below-guideline sentence for a crack case, the Supreme Court reconfirmed the 2005 Booker ruling that federal judges could have more discretion in levying below-guideline sentences. They did not rule on the validity of the guidelines themselves.

This decision should be viewed as the tip of an iceberg. American prisons teem with non-violent prisoners. Our juries are caught between wanting to rush home for the evening and wanting to appear law-abiding. Members are too quick to bow to the loudest voice amongst them, and not necessarily in The Twelve Angry Men direction. Meanwhile, false convictions, due to witness error, prosecutorial misconduct, inferior defense lawyers or coerced “snitching,” continue to destroy multiple generations of lives. They throw the idea of “equal protection under the law” under the same bus as our Declaration of Independence mantra of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We’ve simply got to reverse this zeal to incarcerate. The United States has more inmates and a higher incarceration rate than any other nation: more than Russia, South Africa, Mexico, Iran, India, Australia, Brazil and Canada combined. Nearly 1 in every 136 US residents is in jail or prison. That’s 2.2 million people, an amount that quadrupled from 1980 to 2005. (There were only 340,000 people incarcerated in 1972.) Adding in figures for those on probation or parole, the number reaches 7.1 million.

Over the next five years, the American prison population is projected to increase three times more quickly than our resident population. The Federal Prison system is growing at 4% per year with 55% of federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses, and only 11% for violent crimes. Women are more likely than men (29% to 19%) to serve drug sentences, dismantling thousands of families. One-third of prisoners are first time, non-violent offenders. Three-quarters are non-violent offenders with no history of violence. More than 200,000 are factually innocent. Whether our citizens are wrongly incarcerated or exaggeratedly so, our prison figures are shameful.

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