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U.S. Prisons and Drug Laws
April 2, 2010

The United States is the number one jailer on the planet, and by a wide margin: with 5% of the world population, the U.S. holds 25% of its total prisoners, 2.3 million people. If you include those on parole or probation, the number grows to 7.3 million Americans, one in every 31 adults. Incarceration is not cheap. The U.S. spends $60 billion dollars every year maintaining its ever-growing prison system. It is the second-fastest growing state budget item, after Medicaid.

The rapid growth in prison population over the last 25 years is the result of ever-harsher sentencing laws for drug and other crimes. As Adam Liptak reports in the NEW YORK TIMES, "Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations." Now though, responding to budgetary pressures and shifts in public opinion, both federal and state officials are revisiting prison policy.

The state of California, responding to a budget crisis and a court order requiring it to do something about its overcrowded prisons, plans to release 6,500 prisoners next year and is considering plans to release as many as 40,000 of its 167,000 prisoners.

In 2009, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a blue-ribbon committee review of U.S. incarceration policies. The legislation has the support of both law enforcement and civil rights organizations, and is currently being considered by the Senate.

The War on Drugs
In his Senate floor speech introducing the legislation, Senator Jim Webb tackles another thorny political issue, U.S. drug policy, "The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%."

It has been 37 years since President Nixon first declared a "War on Drugs" and Senator Webb is not it's only critic. The U.S. now spends close to $40 billion a year at home and abroad trying to stop the flow and use of drugs. At home, youth drug use has declined, but hard drugs are cheaper than ever. Abroad, drug profits fund terrorists, drug lords and other dangerous non-state actors.

In a 2001 Pew Center poll, 74% of Americans said they thought the U.S. was losing the drug war and could never stop drug use. What is less clear is where to go next. While polls indicate little desire among Americans for the legalization of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, a growing minority support legalizing and regulating marijuana.

>>Learn more in NPR's five part series, AMERICA'S FORGOTTEN WAR

Published April 2, 2010.
Related Media:
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The story of Dominque Green, executed at 30 by the State of Texas and the subject of recent research by Thomas Cahill.

Fewer than 55,000 Americans currently receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, almost 10 times that number -- nearly 500,000 -- mentally ill men and women are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons. As sheriffs and prison wardens become the unexpected and often ill-equipped caretakers of this burgeoning population, they raise a troubling new concern: Have America's jails and prisons become its new asylums?

References and Reading:
U.S. Prisons
"California, in Financial Crisis, Opens Prison Doors"
By Randal C. Archibold, THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 23, 2010.

"The American Prison Nightmare"
By Jason DeParle, NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, April 12, 2007.

"The Way to Stop Prison Rape"
By David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, March 25, 2010.

"Lock 'em up? It costs you"
By David C. Fathi, Human Rights Watch, April 1, 2009.

"Prison Nation"
By David C. Fathi, Human Rights Watch, April 9, 2009.

"Annals of Human Rights: Hellhole"
By Atul Gawande, THE NEW YORKER, March 30, 2009.

By filmmakers Katie Galloway and Po Kutchins. Shot over four years, PRISON TOWN, USA follows prison guards, inmates and their families as well as the townspeople of Susanville, California, to shed light on the human costs of incarceration.

The Sentencing Project
Organization advocating for prison reform.

"A Nation of Jailers"
by Glenn Loury, CATO UNBOUND, March 11, 2009. Watch Glenn Loury on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

"Prison Spending Outpaces All but Medicaid"
By Solomon Moore, THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 2, 2009.

"Deal on State's Drug Laws Means Resentencing Pleas"
By Jeremy W. Peters, THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 28, 2009.

"The Prison-Industrial Complex"
By Eric Schlosser, THE ATLANTIC, December 1998.

U.S. Drug Policy

"Interdiction and Incarceration Still Top Remedies: 74% Say Drug War Being Lost"
The Pew Center for People and the Press, March 21, 2001.

Drug Policy Alliance Network
The DPA Network works to end the war on drugs.

Office of National Drug Control Policy
U.S. government-run online resources containing drug-related data from a variety of Federal studies frequently updated as new data is released.

"The Drug War's Collateral Damage"
By Radley Balko, REASON MAGAZINE, January 23, 2009.

"Stopping Border Violence by Legalizing Drugs"
By Catherine Rampell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 25, 2009.

CATO Institute on the Drug War.

"Snow Fall"
by Ken Dermota, THE ATLANTIC, July/August 2007. Infographic on the falling price of cocaine.

"The Two Faces of U.S. Drug Policy"
by Jeff Horwitz and Dave Jamieson, THE ATLANTIC, April 8, 2009.

"A criminally stupid war on drugs in the US"
By Clive Crook, THE FINANCIAL TIMES, April 12, 2009.
Also This Week:
In the months before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had expanded his focus on racial justice to include reducing economic inequality. On this week's 42nd anniversary of King's assassination, Bill Moyers sits down with attorneys Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander to discuss how far we've really come as a country, how poor and working class Americans have been falling behind and what America must do to fulfill Dr. King's vision.

Revisit Dr. King's evolving theories of social and economic justice through his speeches. Plus, a Bill Moyers essay.

The U.S. has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners -- how did we get here?

Another study, THE SPIRIT LEVEL by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, shows that the US has the greatest income inequality among the major developed countries. Get the stats and read an interview with the authors.
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