The Baltimore Sun , June 1, 2003
With a record-setting 2 million people now locked up in American jails and prisons, the United States has overtaken Russia and has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country.
Those are the latest dreary milestones resulting from a two-decade imprisonment boom that experts say has probably helped reduce crime but also has created ballooning costs and stark racial inequities.
“Why, in the land of the free, should 2 million men, women and children be locked up?” asks Andrew Coyle, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of London and a leading authority on incarceration.
The latest statistics support that view. The new high of 2,019,234, announced by the Justice Department in April, underscores the extraordinary scale of American imprisonment compared to most of the world.
During the 1990s, the United States and Russia — a far poorer country emerging from totalitarian rule and beset by official corruption and organized crime — vied for the dubious position of the highest incarceration rate on the planet.
But in the last few years, Russian authorities have carried out large-scale amnesties to ease overcrowding in disease-infested prisons, and the United States has emerged unchallenged into first place, at 702 prisoners per 100,000 population. Russia now has 665 prisoners per 100,000.
United States imprisons at a far greater rate than developed Western nations and many impoverished and authoritarian countries. On a per capita basis, according to the best available figures, the United States has three times more prisoners than Iran, four times more than Poland, five times more than Tanzania and seven times more than Germany.
Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton University, says sentencing policies have had a glaringly disproportionate impact on black men. The Justice Department reports that one in eight black men in their 20s and early 30s were behind bars last year, compared with 1 in 63 white men. The chance of a black man going to prison in his lifetime is one in three, the department says.
For black male high school dropouts, Western says, the numbers are still worse: 41 percent of black dropouts between 22 and 30 were locked up in 1999. “I think this is one of the most important developments in race relations in the last 30 years,” he says.
A major cause is the war on drugs. In 1980, says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, about 40,000 Americans were locked up for drugs-only offenses. Now the number is 450,000, three-fourths of them black or Latino, though drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites.