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Crime for Crime

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In a week when most of us in the U.S. are called upon to celebrate our freedom, just a reminder that the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.

By 2009, 2,284,913 people were in prison in the U.S. That is approximately 1 in every 135 people. Many or most of these people are incarcerated for non-violent crimes like drug possession and immigration violations. These numbers have continued to rise even as violent crime rates have dropped.

By 2009, 7,225,800 people were either in prison or jail or on probation or parole, or 1 in every 32 people. Read that again. When I mentioned it to my husband, he said, “Really? Maybe you should double-check that.” I did. Yes, 1 in every 32 people.


That might not be 1 in 32 of the people I know, or that you know, but that just means that in some neighborhoods, it’s 1 in 10, or 1 in 5, or every single adult in sight.

These numbers should make us cry. They are a great shame to us all.

And that’s another thing: all the money that goes into our prison system does not go into education. By 2008, in five states, prison expenditures had already surpassed those for education, and across the country as a whole prison budget growth far exceeds education budget growth. Lack of education is, of course, one of the strongest factors in someone choosing a life of crime. It’s a vicious cycle.

Justice is not color blind. In 2009, rates of incarceration were: 706 of every 100,000 white males, 1,822 per 100,000 Hispanic males, and 4,749 per 100,000 of non-Hispanic black males.

In October 2010, there were 3,242 prisoners on death row in the U.S. Execution rates have been steadily dropping from their 1999 high (of 98 executions) because DNA evidence has been used to exonerate so many death row inmates and so the infallibility of convictions has been called into question. Still, 46 people were executed in 2010 and 25 so far in 2011.

Casey Anthony, however, was declared not guilty even of manslaughter in the death of her child this week. DNA and its representation on TV detective shows has apparently made people believe that a strong circumstantial case is never good enough. That this woman will go free while many people rot in jail for being caught with a little marijuana is incredible indeed. I do believe that the prosecution focused not enough on the fact that Caylee died under Casey’s care (implying gross negligence) when they chose to try to prove premeditation and get the death penalty. The death penalty is not a good idea, even when its distractions get someone off. Period.

For a long time, I believed, contrary to my general progressive liberalism, that there could conceivably be times when the death penalty was warranted. But after considering the racial prejudices apparent in the death row statistics, and those exonerated by DNA, and the fallibility of much eye-witness testimony, not to mention the high financial burden of death penalty appeals, I changed my mind. Ani DiFranco helped me do so with this song, “Crime for Crime.”

Information from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics a and b, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the International Centre for Prison Studies, and the Death Penalty Information Center. There is some slight variation in numbers depending on exactly how counts are made and which prisoners are included (pre-trial vs. convicted, etc.)

2 responses »

  1. You may be interested in following the corner-to-corner motorcycle tour of KC Walpole who has for over a decade done work with inmates here in Florida. He is starting today, actually, on a motorcycle journey across the US with the goal of spreading awareness about the crisis of women and children in jails and prisons. I have worked with KC in Florida prisons for many years and know of nobody more passionate about bringing to people’s attention the huge crisis we are creating in this country – and about actively helping the incarcerated and ex-offenders.


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