Monday, February 9, 2009

Super Sized Incarceration

The super-sizing of American convenience foods (and waistlines) has been well documented. Erik Schlosser began publishing parts of “Fast Food Nation” in Rolling Stone in the late 90s, and Richard Linklater followed up in 2006 with a fine film of the same name. These and other works have exposed the grim production realities behind the shiny sales counters, extending back deep into the food chain, and contributed to a greater level of awareness of the considerations involved in Americans’ national struggle with obesity.

The data are disturbing. In the last forty years, the number of Americans classified as obese has risen from 13 percent to 31 percent, and nearly two in three are overweight, according to the standards used by the Centers for Disease Control. An astounding 3.8 million Americans are over 300 pounds and an equally astounding 400,000 people are over 400 pounds. Many factors beyond the ubiquitous “would you like fries with that?” contribute to this. Yet in public health terms, all that extra weight clearly puts millions of people at increased risk of harm.

Is an analogy to America's super-sized corrections system too obvious? More than 7 million people — 3.2 percent of the adult population — were imprisoned or under community supervision in 2006. The number of incarcerated Americans kept going up in 2007, by 1.5 percent, with 2.3 million prisoners in state or federal prisons or local jails. This means that more than 1 in every 100 adults in the U.S. is behind bars. These numbers are several times more than in any previous era in American history and place us as an outlier among developed nations.

What are we getting for all this stepped-up incarceration and expanded community surveillance, which of course costs a pretty penny? Yes, offenders must be appropriately punished. But for how long? I’ve heard George Will and others argue that crime rates would be even higher if there weren’t so many people behind bars. This position doesn’t really recognize that virtually all offenders who are imprisoned will eventually be released to the community. “Reentry” is the term of art in the corrections biz, and it’s all-too-often overlooked in what passes for national debate on these issues.

In the Gospels, Jesus urges his followers to avoid litigation wherever possible, lest they be put in prison for contempt of court. If that were to happen, he warns, “You will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” Will America be able to reassess its criminal justice policies before we pay our very last penny and find ourselves unable to borrow more from the Chinese?

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