Americans like to brag about how we live in a free country, while many people in other countries live in "police states" and are not free. But if prison population and rates of citizen incarceration are any indicator, then it may be the United States that is the police state.
A new report by the Pew Center on the States reveals some shocking numbers. It turns out that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. For the first time, the U.S. now has one out of every 100 adults locked up in a jail or prison.
The United States also leads the world in the total number of people incarcerated. We have over 2.3 million adults locked up. China, which has a far bigger total population, only has 1.5 million adults behind bars. Russia is in third place with a paltry 890,000 citizens incarcerated.
Does anyone really believe that our citizens are that much worse than the people in other countries? Of course not! The problem is not that our people are more criminal, but that we have chosen a social policy that locks up people that do things we don't approve of, rather than deal with them in another way.
A huge example of this is the way we deal with drug users. In many countries, drug use is considered a health problem, and is dealt with by treatment and education. But here in America, we have chosen to deal with drug users by considering it to be a criminal problem. We have locked up huge amounts of non-violent people simply because they chose to use a drug.
Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with locking up those who steal or hurt other people. But why are we incarcerating people who only hurt themselves by choosing to use drugs? Wouldn't it be more effective, more humane and cheaper to treat this as a public health problem, and deal with it by educating and offering treatment to the users?
Another social decision we have made is to have much tougher sentencing laws, including three strikes laws. Our lawmakers decided, with our acquiescence, that tougher laws would reduce crime. It hasn't.
That really doesn't surprise me. I've been in one form of law enforcement or another since 1976, and I've never met a criminal that thought he would get caught. If you don't think you're going to get caught, why should you worry about how tough sentences are?
It is time for us to reconsider some of our social decisions. They are simply not working. Frankly, any country that locks up one out of every 100 adults is doing something wrong. We must admit this and change our policies.