Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lock 'em Up

If you read one thing this weekend, read the Economist's Briefing on justice in America.

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.  

Part of the article focuses on the obvious craziness of our drug laws. Not a surprise. But the part that was eye-opening to me was the criminalization of so many mundane offenses.

“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title. Making a false statement to a federal official is an offence. So is lying to someone who then repeats your lie to a federal official. Failing to prevent your employees from breaking regulations you have never heard of can be a crime. A boss got six months in prison because one of his workers accidentally broke a pipe, causing oil to spill into a river. “It didn’t matter that he had no reason to learn about the [Clean Water Act’s] labyrinth of regulations, since he was merely a railroad-construction supervisor,” laments Judge Kozinski. 

How many of these offenses would be better served by levying a fine? Locking people up is incredibly expensive and totally unnecessary for many crimes. This is another area that libertarians and "small government" conservatives should be paying more attention to than they are. What's more of a threat to individual freedom, providing health care to millions of people or locking up a larger portion of our population than anyone else in the western world?

It's yet another issue that is crying out for comprehensive reform, but the rhetoric and politics of the issue are so unhinged that it's unlikely that anything substantive can be done. Anything proposed will be caricatured by opponents as being "soft on crime." Nobody wants to be soft on crime! But the current system is inhumane and unsustainable. It needs to change.

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