There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that we live in a punitive culture. Historically, when there has been some form of injustice or crime—by our definition—we are swift to bring down the hammer. With the highest incarceration rate in the entire world and the highest percentage of our population in prison, it’s safe to assume that carrying out “justice” is a regular, every day aspect of our society.
But should this be the case? Is it perhaps conceivable to think that we live in an over-criminalized society?
The likely answer to that question is yes; federal and state prison statistics have repeatedly pointed to a shocking trend within the prison population. In 2009, federal prison statistics were broken up as follows:
Drugs 50.7%, Public-order 35.0%, Violent 7.9%, Property 5.8%, Other .7%
Roughly 86% of the federal prison population consisted non-violent, victimless crimes. These people aren’t serial killers, rapists, or child molesters; they are people who we can very likely associate with having abusive backgrounds, poor upbringings, or quite frankly lives lacking in proper influences that somewhere along the way led them to make poor decisions. Decisions, yes, which led to laws being broken, but ultimately without harm to others and without violence. Under the current logic of our legal system, there is no difference between these people and your actual violent offenders, yet they end up in the same place for very different reasons. 50% of the federal prison population in 2009 was serving lengthy sentences for possession, use, or distribution of illegal drugs. Mandatory sentencing laws, like the “Three Strikes Law” ensure repeat offenders of less serious crimes are locked up for good after a certain number of offenses. One can’t help but feel as though we give up on people and sign away their fate to the processes of life imprisonment rather than address the underlying problems that are sure to exist and are capable of being fixed. Meager investment into rehab and work programs has led to a pendulous upswing in convictions, and for every conviction there’s one less person contributing to society, one more person sucking millions of tax-payer dollars out of public hands, and one more life irrevocably reduced to a statistic. Prison should be a last resort, not an undergraduate program.
The logic of our justice system is, well, frightening, but it’s a sort of national logic that defines our politics as well. Historically, it’s interesting to think of all of the conflicts we’ve had a hand in throughout the world. One might suggest that our country is deeply rooted in a struggle where it sees itself as the ideological purveyor of justice for the world—our citizenry included.
Regardless of your view, there is reasonable consensus suggesting that there are obvious flaws within our justice system that can be reversed with the right kind of political action.
Political action… Yeah. That’s reassuring.