WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world...
I am not a big fan of the US government as it has some of the most draconian policies on this planet. It's not a republican/democrat issue either but more to do with the huge ego of the leaders and their hypocritical moralistic attitudes. I don't really know Americans as a people but if there is one criticism, it is the misguided attitude of self importance. This is clearly reflected in their patriotism which can be rather sickly and is usually extremely overdone. Apart from this, they struggle with the ups and downs of daily life like most of the world. There is an exception though ... many of them will probably go to jail for actions that you and I would consider paltry.
The US policy that effects most of the world is not the 'War on Terror' we so often hear about but another war ... the 'War on Drugs'. This insidious policy started by Nixon in 1971 has grown into a massive problem for the US and the rest of the world. Each year as the problems caused by this policy grow, the more the US push their military like actions. Part of these actions is to muster up support from other countries by either bullying them to adhere to their standards or to blame them for supplying the drugs to an eager consumer market in the US.
One of major effects of the 'War on Drugs' is the massive prison population that appeared over the last 35 years. The drug enforcement agency (DEA) is so powerful now that is almost a military organisation. They have helicopters, heavy artillery, forensic units, soldiers, combat armoury, satellites and even tanks. The officers are dedicated and the prize is people in jail. Not just large drug barons but anyone connected to drugs ... small dealer-users, users, medical marijuana patients, growers, doctors etc. The endplan was simple once - to wipe out illicit drug use completely. Now that has been replaced with the aim to arrest as many people as possible, using any means available. As they often quote, one battle at a time. The problem is the war is never actually won, just lots of casualties. This approach is now taking it's toll with one in every 100 US citizens in jail. At the end of 2006, one in 32 were either in jail or on parole. That is over 2.2 millions incarcerated people. More than China and more than Russia. In fact more than any other nation on earth.
Sadly, over 50% of these prisoners are are drug related. This is a stunning revelation as the majority of drug arrests are for possession of marijuana, and most people in prison for a drug offense have no history of violence or high-level drug dealing. The number of prisoners held prior to sentencing is also rising. In 2006, 62% of prisoners were awaiting trial. Most were arrested on drug charges.
Although the US spend over $69 billion collectively per year on fighting drugs, the rate of drug use hasn't really changed since 1975 ... four years after the "War on Drugs" was launched. Stricter sentencing has steadily risen since then with such bizarre policies as "3 strikes and you're out" where on the 3rd conviction, a mandatory life imprisonment is imposed. For a drug addict, this could mean a life of jail for being caught using drugs. Many of these offenders though are just marijuana users and logic tells me there is something very wrong. Mandatory sentencing was imposed in the early 1980s to take away the discretion judges were showing on addicts and 'soft drug' users. This was followed by the "3 strikes and you're out" policy. Not to be beaten, some bright spark wasn't happy the prison population of drug felons had only doubled in 10 years. They came up with the idea of targeting buyers by posing as dealers. Waiting at well known drug dealing areas, the undercover police would wait for buyers to ask for drugs and they would then be arrested. It was such an easy way to increase the number of arrests it soon changed to where the undercover police would approach cars at traffic lights and ask a driver if they want some 'really cheap dope'. If the driver said yes, they were arrested. With tougher sentences and a higher risk of going to jail, maybe for life, some buyers started bring guns just to by marijuana. So not only did the prison population grow but the rate of drug deaths and violence.
The height of sentencing insanity was when Ronald Reagan reacted to the crack problem that peaked whilst he was in office. Cocaine was very much a rich white man's drug. It was expensive and used mainly by the affluent and predominately white America. It lacked the stigma of heroin and the socio-economic links to amphetamines and the lower classes. Crack cocaine though was much more addictive and inexpensive. It ripped through the 'other' America very quickly and drug crime grew even more than the 'War on Drugs' had already caused. In the wisdom of a typical zero tolerance government, a federal law was passed that sets a 100 to one sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine. This means that distribution of just five grams of crack cocaine (about a thimble full) yields a five year mandatory minimum sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same five year sentence. Crack is the only drug for which there is a federal mandatory minimum sentence for mere possession.
The prison population in the US now costs nearly $50 billion dollars a year to maintain yet there is still over filling in the the jails. It seems America is doomed to have more criminals than non criminals if the trend continues. The additional consequences are also now starting to be felt. Masses of ex convicts unable to regain previous jobs and having to accept menial employment. The threat of a potential third strike causing some to shoot dead police to avoid life imprisonment even for petty crimes or minor drug possession charges. Some states are even spending more on prisons than education or core services have to be cut to fund them. It all seems very hypocritical for a country that boasts being the home of the free and fighters for liberty.