Saturday, June 30, 2012

Amazed by the Numbers

Round numbers are supposed to be easier to get your mind around. But it’s hard to do that, when the round number is one American in every 100 behind bars.

The American prison system currently holds about 1.6 million people. Jails confine another 735,000 more, according to latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The jail figure is down slightly in the last few years. But when the number of prison inmates is added in, the total number of people confined in correctional facilities approaches 2.4 million.

It’s not so much a system as a set of systems, consisting of 50 states, the District of Columbia, the feds, and various local governments — particularly jails at the county level.

With so many decision makers, it’s hardly a vast conspiracy. The cumulative effect, however, is Leviathan-like in size. Scholars now call it mass incarceration.

This Leviathan is a labyrinth for many who are inside it. With prison terms so long and rehabilitation resources so scarce, it must seem like being stuck in a maze, trying to get out.

Indeed, mass incarceration has also become a labyrinth in policy terms. But no Theseus is in sight, to slay, or at least tame, the beast our society has created out of fear and malign neglect.

The closest we’ve come is Sen. Jim Webb, whose sensible proposal in 2009 for a national commission to review sentencing policy and practice went nowhere fast.

Instead of a single national hero, how about a host of heroes at the state and local level? In the dark maze, they could be a thousand points of light.

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