The United States is often described as a punitive nation. Population growth alone cannot explain the phenomenal growth of its prison system. While the nation contains only 5 percent of the global population, its prisons now house 25 percent of the world’s inmates. On February 15, 2000, the U.S. prison population reached 2 million, according to the Justice Policy Institute, doubling in only a decade. Currently, sixteen states have lower populations than the number of people incarcerated in the nation’s correctional facilities.
Many crime experts favor these high rates of incarceration, arguing that America is the most violent of industrialized nations. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that the chance of being murdered in the United States is about six times higher than in England. Supporters insist that incarcerating more offenders for longer periods of time is the best way to maintain public safety. A study conducted by economist Steve Levitt found that an additional fifteen crimes each year occur every time an inmate is released from prison due to overcrowding.
However, critics of the prison system maintain that America’s crime rate does not exceed those of similar nations; therefore its high imprisonment rates are not justified. For example, a survey conducted by the Dutch Ministry of Justice found that Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand had higher incidences of eleven types of crime than the United States, including robbery, burglary, and car theft. Critics attribute America’s prison population boom not to an epidemic of crime, but to harsher sentencing laws and the nation’s war on drugs, characterized by increased antidrug efforts and stiffer penalties for drug offenders. Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, maintains that “in 1980, 6 percent of inmates were in for drug offenses. That’s up to 21 percent in 2000.”
Because of chronic prison overcrowding and the rapid expansion of the prison system, the nation’s penal policies have been intensely scrutinized, especially those dealing with drug offenders. Near the end of his second term, former President Bill Clinton said, “We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment. . . . There are tons of people in prison who are nonviolent offenders—who have drug related charges that are directly related to their own drug problems.”
Many critics of the prison system contend that 1 million of these offenders languish behind bars, trapped by rigid mandatory sentences aimed at incapacitating the worst offenders. They also add that drug abuse runs rampant in prison, and most incarcerated drug addicts receive little or no treatment.
Various states are experimenting with alternative sanctions for drug offenders. In recent years, the number of drug courts, where judges stringently monitor drug offenders’ probation, have spread across the country. In 1996, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, an initiative that gives drug offenders the choice to enter substance abuse rehabilitation programs instead of prison. Many drug reform supporters are calling the proposition a success. A similar initiative, Proposition 36, was passed four years later in California.
Many experts applaud the shifting approach in the war on drugs and claim that alternative sanctions can offer potential solutions to the challenges posed by drug abuse and the overburdened prison system. For instance, proponents of alternative sanctions contend that sending drug offenders to treatment can alleviate taxpayers of the skyrocketing costs of corrections. Although residential treatment for a drug addict can cost up to $7,000 a year, the annual cost of incarceration starts at $25,000. Advocates also assert that diverting drug offenders from the prison system will enhance public safety in two ways. First, it will make more prison space available to incapacitate violent offenders and career criminals. Sec16 ond, because many drug addicts commit crimes such as theft and prostitution in order to pay for their drug habits, ending drug offenders’ addictions can lower the crime rate. A State of Connecticut report claims that alternatives to incarceration are two to five times more effective than prison in lowering drug crimes.
However, detractors of initiatives such as Propositions 36 and 200 claim that incarceration is necessary to treat drug offenders. Criminal justice investigator David Cole suggests that the “introduction of judicial authority and criminal sanctions appears to make treatment more effective.” Proposition 36 has even been criticized by former drug addicts and alcoholics. Actor Martin Sheen, who successfully recovered from alcoholism, says the initiative “takes away the leverage that a judge has to get an addict’s attention.” Some experts maintain that Proposition 36 is too lenient and may actually keep more drug offenders on the streets than in treatment. According to an analysis of Proposition 36 by the Rand Corporation, “Probation caseloads are very high. A person who quits a treatment program is unlikely to draw the same kind of attention as a violent offender who does not meet his or her conditions.”
Some opponents argue that alternative sanctions such as drug treatment unfairly favor offenders belonging to the middle and upper classes. They claim that most drug offenders from the lower class are unable to afford drug treatment and end up in prison. According to Corey Pearson, a former volunteer with the Prisoners’ Rights Union, “The programs which work are usually reserved for populations which have the means to avoid falling into the criminal justice system abyss—generally the middle class.”
Other critics maintain that drug treatment is plainly ineffective and should not be used as an alternative to incarceration. For example, former federal drug policy directors William J. Bennett and John P. Walters insist that “overall, cocaine treatment is only 4 percent effective in reducing heavy use and 2 percent more effective in reducing heavy use than no treatment at all.” They also criticize drug courts and alternative sanctions for drug offenders, contending that “a very large number of addicted offenders today are long-term, hard-core addicts who are poorly suited for diversion programs.”
Proponents of alternative sanctions contend that sentencing drug offenders to treatment instead of prison can more effectively supervise the ever-growing numbers of drug abusers caught in the net of the justice system. They insist that drug treatment is more beneficial than incarceration because it is more economical and promotes public safety by lowering recidivism rates and keeping dangerous criminals behind bars. Yet opponents argue that removing incarceration from the drug treatment equation eliminates a powerful incentive for drug offenders to change their ways. They also maintain that initiatives such as Proposition 36 will cast drug abusers out of supervision into the grip of addiction. America’s Prisons: Opposing Viewpoints investigates this dilemma and other challenges facing America’s prisons in the following chapters: Are Prisons Effective? How Should Prisons Treat Inmates? Should Prisons Use Inmate Labor? What Are the Alternatives to Prisons? These chapters explore the major arguments shaping the future of America’s prison system.