A Nation Behind Bars

The Justice Department has released its latest incarceration figures, revealing that the rush to lock up our nation's population continues at a brisk pace:

Growing at a rate of about 900 inmates each week between mid-2003 and mid-2004, the nation's prisons and jails held 2.1 million people, or one in every 138 U.S. residents, the government reported Sunday.

While the crime rate has fallen over the past decade, the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, said the report's co-author, Paige Harrison.

Harrison said the increase can be attributed largely to get-tough policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are mandatory drug sentences, "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws for repeat offenders, and "truth-in-sentencing" laws that restrict early releases.

As we've noted before, these draconian policies uniquely hurt the South, and where enacted with key backing from "get tough on crime" Democrats (resulting in, among other things, the disenfranchisement of millions of potential Democratic voters).

Another disturbing trend noted in the report: the continued growth of for-profit prisons, which now house over 98,000 inmates -- including 13.7% of all federal prisoners -- despite a troubling history of cost-overruns, ethical lapses, cutting corners, and other dangerous habits (see here.)

The fight for a fairer, better justice system should be front and center in a progressive agenda. Three of my favorite groups working towards this end are Families Against Mandatory Minimums, The Sentencing Project, and the Southern Center for Human Rights. As for fighting for-profit prisons, our friends at Grassroots Leadership (in a campaign co-launched with the Institute for Southern Studies in 2000) are still leading the charge.