Matthew 25:41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 1 Timothy 4:3 commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.


More Democracy, More Incarceration

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The devastating mix of politics and crime policy


By Radley Balko

October 27, 2010

Listen to Audio Version (MP3)

Last year the U.S. prison population declined for the first time in a generation. That's good news, but it doesn't begin to offset the damage done by a 30-year incarceration binge that has made America far and away the democratic world's leader in putting people behind bars.

The numbers are staggering. In 1970 one in 400 American adults was behind bars or on parole. As of 2008, the number was one in 100. Add in probation, and it's one in 31. The number of people behind bars for drug crimes has soared from 40,000 in 1980 to about half a million today. States today spend one of every 15 general fund dollars on maintaining their prisons. According to the King's College World Prison Population List (PDF), the U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world's population but nearly a fourth of its prisoners. Judging by these official numbers, America's incarceration rate leads the developed world by a large margin, although it's doubtful that authoritarian regimes such as China's are providing accurate data, especially about political prisoners. But among liberal democracies, the competition isn't even close: As of 2008, the U.S. incarceration rate was 756 per 100,000 people, compared to 288 for Latvia, 153 for England and Wales, 96 for France, and 63 for Denmark.

America's soaring prison population has spawned much debate over issues such as the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentences, the financial burden that prisons impose on states struggling with budget shortfalls, and the degree to which incarceration explains the dramatic drop in crime during the last 20 years. But the United States has never had such a high percentage of its citizens behind bars, and we really have no idea what long-term effects the tough-on-crime policies of the last few decades will have. During the next decade, for example, we will start to see the release of nonviolent drug offenders hit with the draconian prison sentences Congress established in the 1980s. It isn't hard to see how locking a drug offender up with violent criminals for two decades and then releasing him into the population as a convicted felon might portend some bad results.

There are other problems. We have a record number of women behind bars, many of them pregnant or mothers of small children. This is a trend state governments aren't handling well. The prison population is aging, a problem made worse by policies like abolishing parole. Since Virginia lawmakers abolished parole in 1995, The Washington Post reported in September, the number of prisoners over 50 in the state's correctional system has increased fourfold. If our prison habit is expensive now, just wait until taxpayers are covering medical care as the front end of the prison boom enters its golden years. (Interestingly, prison doesn't seem to significantly shorten life spans; black men actually live longer in prison than they do outside.)

There may be lingering, intergenerational problems too. While income inequality rises and falls, America has always boasted healthy economic mobility—the ability of earners in lower income brackets to move up in a relatively short period of time. But the authors of a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study published in the social science journal Daedelus argue that mass incarceration may be crippling mobility. Sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington write that the handicap associated with a criminal record and time in prison can linger for decades, affecting not just felons themselves but their families, social networks, and neighborhoods as well.

Western and Pettit note that high school dropouts without felony records do substantially better than high school dropouts who have done time. Perhaps that's not surprising; we'd expect that committing a felony would limit one's earning potential, and some might even welcome that effect as part of the punishment. But Western and Pettit argue that it's actual incarceration, not the felony record, that's most limiting. Long-term incarceration severs old social networks, instead fostering new networks with other criminals. Child support obligations accumulate while men are incarcerated, hitting them with debt upon release that limits their ability to establish themselves financially. If the aim of the correctional system is to stunt offenders for life, we're doing fine. If it's to integrate them back into society after they've done their time, we're coming up short.

Most worrisome is the effect on the children of incarcerated parents and the potential for an intergenerational "stickiness" in the lower income brackets. In 1985, Western and Pettit note, one in every 125 American children had a parent behind bars. Today it's one in 28. For black children, it's one in nine, a fourfold increase during the last 25 years. While we have yet to see any long-term studies on the income mobility of convicts' children, it seems safe to say having a parent behind bars can't help. Sons of incarcerated parents are five times more likely to be suspended from school, and about half of incarcerated parents were the primary income earners for their kids. These facts suggest that children of incarcerated parents are not just unlikely to achieve upward economic mobility; they are also prime candidates to become second-generation inhabitants of the correctional system.

How to reverse or ameliorate the damage already done is a debate we'll be having for decades. But there is one change that could at least stop the bleeding: less democracy. As New York Times reporter Adam Liptak pointed out in a 2008 article, America's soaring incarceration rate may be largely due to the fact that we have one of the most politicized criminal justice systems in the developed world. In most states, judges and prosecutors are elected, making them more susceptible to slogan-based crime policy and an electorate driven by often irrational fear. While the crime rate has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, polls consistently show that the public still thinks crime is getting worse. (2 Peter 2:19 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: [Saints See: WikiLeaks docs raise questions of Obama policies...Analysis of war docs shows some Iraqi detainees were handed back despite signs of torture - President Barack Obama stepped into the White House pledging to end George W. Bush's gloves-off approach to interrogations and detention — but a flood of leaked documents suggests that some old habits were hard to break.
Field reports from the Iraq war published by WikiLeaks show that, despite Obama's public commitment to eschew torture, U.S. forces turned detainees over to Iraqi forces even after signs of abuse.
Documents also show that U.S. interrogators continued to question Iraqi detainees, some of whom were still recovering from injuries or whose wounds were still visible after being held by Iraqi security forces.
"We have not turned a blind eye," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday, noting that one of the reasons why U.S. troops were still in Iraq was to carry out human rights training with Iraqi security forces. "Our troops were obligated to report abuses to appropriate authorities and to follow up, and they did so in Iraq."
Crowley added, "If there needs to be an accounting, first and foremost there needs to be an accounting by the Iraqi government itself, and how it has treated its own citizens."
Obama signed three executive orders shortly after taking office, vowing to return America to the "moral high ground" in the war on terrorism.
The implication was that the United States would do more to make sure terror suspects weren't tortured or abused — either at the hands of U.S. forces or by governing authorities to whom the detainees were handed over for detention or interrogation.
WikiLeaks recently published almost 400,000 U.S. military logs, mainly written by soldiers on the ground, detailing daily carnage in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion: detainees abused by Iraqi forces, insurgent bombings, sectarian executions and civilians shot at checkpoints by U.S. troops.
In one leaked document from a U.S. military intelligence report filed Feb. 9, 2009 — just weeks after Obama ordered U.S. personnel to comply with the Geneva Conventions — an Iraqi says he was detained by coalition forces at his Baghdad home and told he would be sent to the Iraqi army if he didn't cooperate. According to the document, the detainee was then handed over to Iraqis where he said he was beaten and given electric shocks.
U.S. interrogators also cleared detainees for questioning, despite signs that they had suffered abuse from Iraqi security forces, the documents show.
One report by a U.S. interrogation detention team based in Baghdad on April 2, 2009, summarizes claims made by a prisoner who said he was hog tied and beaten with a shovel as part of dayslong torture ordeal at the hands of the Iraqi army. The report noted he had a catalog of "minor injuries," including "rope burns on the back of his legs and a possible busted ear drum."][Saints See: A worse record than Saddam's - Bad boy Julian Assange, the pretty, blondish founder of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks was hugely admired when he uncovered oppressors and political chicanery in places like China and Kenya, but now he takes on Western duplicity and crimes. Can't have that. This spawn of Beelzebub, say our masters, a traitor whose insolence is a crime against the secretive states of the US and UK. Disregard the pique and dyspepsia of officialdom. It is a distraction, smoke from fires deliberately started to stop us seeing what lies before us.
The audacious website first released confidential and candid material on the hellish war in Afghanistan and now opens up a new front, more than 400,000 classified US files documenting the previously untold horrors of the Iraq war. Revealed are countless atrocities and the deaths of 66,000 Iraqi civilians at the hands of US and British soldiers and Iraqi personnel who had joined the allies.
(Comment: Even this Arab has to lie about the true death toll to get his story published in the mainstream press.) Men were burnt, some had parts removed, others were killed slowly; women were shot, children too, killed before they grew. Anything goes, it seems, during a military conflict and no questions are asked. As an Israeli army trainer said, when asked about the death of Rachel Corrie, the young, pro-Palestinian activist mown down by an Israeli tank: "During war there are no civilians".
The authorities in Iraq did not investigate reports of abuse and killings. An Iraqi friend tells me the rape of girls, women, boys and men was widespread, a tool used both to intimidate and punish. Apparently, there are images from Abu Ghraib prison of these sadistic "punishments"; they were never released because of the feelings they could arouse in Muslim countries. So morally deformed are these men of war that they care more about inconvenient outrage than they do about crimes against the people they supposedly went to save. They should have heeded the words of Martin Van Creveld, an erudite Israeli war historian who compared the disastrous American Vietnam War with the Iraq adventure: "He who fights the weak – and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed – and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins, also loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is unnecessary and therefore cruel." By this reasoning, to fight the weak who are not in any sense your enemy is extreme brutishness and totally self-defeating.
Key figures in the British Army and Government must have been privy to this information. They held their tongues and presumably sidestepped any ethical niggles. The Americans were in command and you don't get to lick the arse of the world's only superpower and then turn round and kick it. That, you understand, is the pact, the unbreakable deal behind our special relationship.
Manfred Novak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, says Obama's administration must investigate and come clean – after all, this President vowed to change the image and behaviour of the US which, for too long, has co-operated with tyrants and violated human rights across the world, including in Guantanamo Bay, which is still open and where captured, lost boys became broken men.
Fewer and fewer global citizens now believe the rapturous anthems and sombre panegyrics of God's own America. After this week, the number will have tumbled further, which, in some ways, is a pity. There is much to praise about the US, its history of perpetual resistance to unacceptable state power, its energy, creativity, business, intellectual and cultural buzz. When such a great nation does great wrong, its mirror is shattered and even if the shards are stuck back together again, the cracks will always remain.]
Revelation 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.)

In response to these fears, legislators have increasingly eroded the discretion of prosecutors and judges (already subject to political pressures) in charging defendants and imposing sentences. Under the theory that more punishment is always better, lawmakers have imposed mandatory minimum sentences, made parole and probation more difficult, and decreed that mere possession of drugs above a certain quantity is automatically treated as distribution. The democratic demand for such policies may be clearest in California, where it is relatively easy to pass legislation through ballot initiatives. Such initiatives have led to some of the toughest crime policies in the country—and nearly twice as many prisoners as the state's prisons are supposed to hold.

The good news is that these issues are finally getting some attention, and there's some evidence that public opinion on crime and punishment may finally be shifting. If that's true, the key will be using that momentum to not only change bad laws but to add institutional reforms that better insulate the criminal justice system from politics.

Courtesy Reason Online

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