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Why are so many Americans in prison?
August 8, 2007 8:24 PM   Subscribe

The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its citizens then other industrialized nations and that percentage has been increasing even as the crime rate declines. Glen Loury discusses this seemingly odd phenomena and speculates as to the cause. Don't skip the ruminations on perceptions of race and welfare deep in the article. Want to crunch some numbers yourself? US crime statistics, US prison statistics, international prison statistics. Previously on metafilter.
posted by shothotbot (82 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought much of it would be to the privatized prison lobby.

If you have to show quarterly growth to your shareholders, the best way to do that is to increase your customer base. In this case the customer base is prisoners, each one representing a hunk of income moving from the government to your corporation.

As a result you set up a lobby that works through the government to make sure it gets easier and easier to land people into the pokey (minimum drug sentencing laws, three strikes and your out laws, patriot act, etc) in order to keep your revenue stream up.

See? The free market does decide!
posted by sourwookie at 8:36 PM on August 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


that percentage has been increasing even as the crime rate declines

Funny, some might think the crime rate is going down because we're locking up all the bad guys.

But no, it couldn't be that. It's too easy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:43 PM on August 8, 2007


This is one of the reasons why I would not like to bring up a child in the US.
posted by signal at 8:44 PM on August 8, 2007


Bad motherfuckers. The lot of them.
posted by unSane at 8:57 PM on August 8, 2007


Don't forget to mention that these guys are going to get initiated into gangs, probably raped, possibly infected with AIDS, then we're going to release them back into society where they will be registered as convicted felons, unable to get a job and unable to vote.
posted by empath at 8:57 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cool Papa Bell: Funny, some might think the crime rate is going down because we're locking up all the bad guys.

That would invoke an even nastier question: Why does the US have an overwhelmingly larger percentage of bad guys than any civilized country in the world, and a still larger percentage than most of the uncivilized ones?

I'd prefer to think there's something horribly wrong with our social justice mechanisms than assume our culture is so horribly ill. My personal guess? It's because society has somehow gotten the idea that most criminals are incorrigible, and can't be reintegrated into society. Long sentencing and probation/parole (which can be so arcane that even people trying to go straight mess up) contribute to this on one end, and the background checks and wholescale rejection of anyone with a record on the workforce side. A lot of jobs even check for misdemeanors now!

I can't imagine how hard it is to reintegrate for even a minor criminal, who is basically put through an insane labyrinth of rules and regulations and can aspire to become a lifetime janitor - maybe - if he's lucky enough to find a job.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:05 PM on August 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Funny, some might think the crime rate is going down because we're locking up all the bad guys.

But no, it couldn't be that. It's too easy.


What are you doing posting here? Academia requires your deep insights! Go, now, for the good of the country!
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:05 PM on August 8, 2007 [7 favorites]


Funny, some might think the crime rate is going down because we're locking up all the bad guys.

But no, it couldn't be that. It's too easy.


You're right, it would be.
posted by wilful at 9:07 PM on August 8, 2007


also, previously

Funny, some might think the crime rate is going down because we're locking up all the bad guys.

But no, it couldn't be that. It's too easy.


Yes, as soon as criminals are locked up for say, 10 years or so, they return to society as upstanding citizens and never ever commit crimes again.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leaves no room for a true rehabilitation of said criminals. If the answer to rising crime is "more prisons" and the answer to less crime is "more prisons still" it will eventually create a self-sustaining cycle of increasingly harsher punishments and an increasing number of criminals.

Imagine a situation where law-abiding society is so terrified of the millions of angry, anti-social men we've created through incarceration, that the public will demand mandatory death sentences and life-without-parole for increasingly minor crimes -- if only to reduce the number of hardened criminals being continually cycled back into society. Rinse and repeat until you have Saudi Arabia or Singapore.
posted by Avenger at 9:12 PM on August 8, 2007


I'm pretty sure it's because the US locks people up for offenses that aren't prison-worthy (or even crimes) in most other countries.

Take as an example this story of a man who was arrested for possession of 58 Vicodin tablets.

He had a valid prescription. At trial no evidence was presented that he intended to sell or otherwise break the drug laws. And yet he did two years in jail.

And then after the appeals court laughed the original conviction out of the court, the prosecutors are going after him again.

All that for a guy who had a minute bit of weed (for which he wasn't charged) and 58 vicodin pills, for which he held a valid and confirmed prescription.

The drug war explains 90% of all prison related idiocy in America.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:14 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


I thought much of it would be to the privatized prison lobby.

I can't help but think a lot of it is, too. Several years ago, a MetaFilter member posted a comment about privatizing probation that opened up a whole new view for me of private prisons - they can make money on locking a guy up, and when the state decides to let the guy go, they can make money by violating his probation because he couldn't afford to pay them, and then make money when they add him back to gen pop. All without him really committing a new crime. It is a brilliant way of keeping the consumer hooked!
posted by cmonkey at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2007


Sorry, violating his parole. The probation moneymaking just skips the initial profit of locking him up.
posted by cmonkey at 9:22 PM on August 8, 2007


So which presidential candidates are for ending/reducing the war on drugs?
posted by erikgrande at 9:35 PM on August 8, 2007


So which presidential candidates are for ending/reducing the war on drugs?

Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. What a country we live in when they are deemed "cranks". In Western Europe they would be run of the mill moderates.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 9:43 PM on August 8, 2007


it's been a few years since i read about this, so here's a general link that could start you off if you're interested.

as i remember it, there's the minimum sentencing guidelines for crack and cocaine, 5/50. this means that for 5 grams of crack someone gets the same minimum sentence for 50 grams of cocaine. crack is a derivative of cocaine, splice some cocaine with baking soda, or something like that (like i said, it's been awhile, but i believe i'm pretty on the spot with all of this). crack is cheap, cocaine isn't, but it's essentially the same thing, just different effects to the user. i remember reading (sorry for not having more links, but if you like i'll take the time to back myself up, just ask) that this essentially explains the disparity in the racial makeup of our prison system. the DOJ looked at the findings of the sentencing projects research into this and agreed with the assertion. but didn't do anything about it, obviously.

christian parenti did a book about some of this awhile back. in the book is this great quote by H.R. Haledman, chief of staff for nixon.

“[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”

this is a quote that can be interpreted pretty broadly, of course, but i think you could just insert whatever "problem" population you want for "the Blacks" and that would explain alot of the reasoning behind what gets criminalized. the way i interpret the war on drugs is just a means of regulating segments of the population on the margins. it's like making pissing in public illegal in order to keep the homeless off the streets for shoppers. alot of the consensual crimes that people get in trouble for, in our society, is just means of cleaning it all up a bit so everything can be a little prettier in the right areas of town.
posted by andywolf at 9:46 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Correction, the last two would. Paul's economic views are right of center everywhere.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 9:47 PM on August 8, 2007


In Western Europe they would be run of the mill moderates.

I'm pretty sure that Ron Paul would not even be a run of the mill moderate if he were running for mayor of Crazytown.
posted by cmonkey at 9:48 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. What a country we live in when they are deemed "cranks". In

I was recently in the US and I found, twice, in cities a few hundreds of miles apart, Ron Paul For president stickers in public toilets.

that left me baffled.
posted by matteo at 9:50 PM on August 8, 2007


I read the Loury article the other day and it made me sad and angry. The US has 5% of the world's population, and contains 25% of the world's prisoners. (That's from the Loury piece, the stats he got it from are available in .pdf format here.)

And as someone who has been on the receiving end of the American criminal justice system (misdemeanor possession of marijuana, possession of paraphernalia) and done jail time for it (but not prison time, and there's a WORLD of difference) I can honestly say that the experience taught me absolutely nothing except how to be a better "criminal".

I was in with guys charged with rape, murder, arson, sexual assault on a minor (and no he didn't get the shit kicked out of him, because he was 6' 5" of pure, mean muscle and the one guy who tried it got a couple of broken fingers for the effort), burglary, armed robbery...you name it. Most of them were prison-bound, awaiting transfer in county before being shipped out. But the vast majority of the people I met in jail were there for drugs: possession or distribution. Of course, we had great counselors available with medical detox and regular 12-step meetings. Yeah, right. We had none of that. We had cinderblock walls and cold showers and the constant smell of feet and farts.

Because I was a short-timer, non-violent, and low-flight-risk, after a couple of weeks I got one of the plum outside work assignments: walking down the side of the road in an orange jumpsuit picking up trash. This was a great step up, cuz we could smoke, we got some sunshine, and we bribed the driver to stop off at the store every few days for a soda and a candy bar. Plus our lunches came from the grocery store, instead of the jail kitchen -- huge plus. After 8 hours of that, it was easy to fall asleep at night, and guys on the work crew got to stay in unlocked pods (meaning we weren't locked down at night and could sit in the common area and read or play cards.

I don't know what my point is, other than that the criminal justice system took a guy who'd never really thought too badly of cops and courts and turned him into an absolute cynic who will never, ever, under any circumstances, help a cop for any reason.

Cops want one thing: to put you in jail. They will lie to you, to their bosses, to the judge, to anyone, if they can successfully put you in jail. Cops exist not to keep the peace and aid the citizenry; they exist to exert the power of the state over individuals, and once you are in their sights for any reason, you are well and truly fucked.

We are warehousing our poor, locking them up because there are no jobs for them, no small-business loans for them, no education for them that will do them any good in an ever-more-brutal job market.

It's wrong, and it's shameful, and it's gonna bite us in the ass.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:12 PM on August 8, 2007 [39 favorites]


[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks.

Lee Atwater:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say 'nigger'--that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me--because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:14 PM on August 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Mitrovarr : It's because society has somehow gotten the idea that most criminals are incorrigible, and can't be reintegrated into society.

I hate to say it, but I've come to believe that anyone who spends more than a decade in an American prison is pretty much a lost cause. Rehabilitation may seem like the goal in our way of doing things, but generally, people who cycle through the system are only going to be educated in what to do to find themselves back behind bars.

From the perspective of a franchise/ private business, this is fantastic. From the point of view of someone who wants to see people who have made bad choices helped, this is the worst kind of train-wreck.
posted by quin at 10:24 PM on August 8, 2007


The reason why the crime rate is decreasing is because of the demographic shift. There are, relative to the size of the (American) population as a whole, fewer young men to commit crimes these days.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:25 PM on August 8, 2007


[W]e law-abiding, middle-class Americans have made decisions about social policy and incarceration, and we benefit from those decisions, and that means from a system of suffering, rooted in state violence, meted out at our request. We had choices and we decided to be more punitive. Our society—the society we have made—creates criminogenic conditions in our sprawling urban ghettos, and then acts out rituals of punishment against them as some awful form of human sacrifice.

Wow.
posted by felix betachat at 10:31 PM on August 8, 2007


Puts that whole Willie Horton ad in a new perspective after reading Atwater state it so baldly.

Having grown up with racist family members and neighbors who also happen to be Republicans, it was never difficult for me to make the connection. They said the same things that respectable 'conservative' pundits were saying about being 'tough on crime' and 'states rights' and 'welfare queens', except they had no problem saying 'nigger', too, except not out in public.

The idea that Reagan and Bush weren't tossing around the 'n' word left and right behind closed doors never occurred to me.
posted by empath at 10:33 PM on August 8, 2007


Ron Paul would not even be a run of the mill moderate if he were running for mayor of Crazytown.

That's true in a sense. I think everybody disagrees with at least one of the candidates Gnostic Novelist mentioned (Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel) in some fundamental ways. However, if you think this (drug war driven imprisonment) is a major issue, then I think it's appropriate to cut whichever ones you think are "crazy" a little slack, or at least admit they're sane (i.e., agree with you) on this one point. Cherish the common ground. I respect all three for their stance on this issue.
posted by erikgrande at 10:34 PM on August 8, 2007


Mitrovarr wrote: probation/parole (which can be so arcane that even people trying to go straight mess up)

In my state, based on the experience of people I know who have been on probation and parole both, they're pretty damn lax around here. You have to fail a drug test many times before they toss you back in prison. (or put you in prison the first time) One can even miss several appointments without much trouble.

Sure, they all say their POs are asses, but they almost never hassle anybody who doesn't have it coming to them, and even then it's rare.

The only things they really care about are their $40 a month or whatever it is and that you claim to have a home that is not occupied by other felons. Oh, and that you don't fail four drug tests in a row.

Of course, that may be because our prisons are continually full, to the point where many people end up serving their sentences in county jails. That despite almost all first time drug offenders being put on probation, even for fairly large amounts. (Unless you're black or Mexican, in which case it's in the can for you if you have a bunch of your drug of choice)

Personally, I think a big part of the ever increasing punishment regime has to do with felons in most states being permanently barred from voting. Only some northern states automatically reinstate a person's right to vote after they are released from prison or get off parole. Only one or two are actually enlightened and allow prisoners to vote.

The funny thing about this whole subject is how much variability there is from state to state regarding particular crimes. Oklahoma, for example, is draconian about pretty much everything (except child molestation, oddly enough).
posted by wierdo at 10:47 PM on August 8, 2007


I was probably being a bit too sensitive in my last post. I would like to note, along the lines of GN's, "What a country we live in when they are deemed 'cranks'," that all three of those candidates are seriously against the Iraq war.
posted by erikgrande at 10:48 PM on August 8, 2007


quin: I hate to say it, but I've come to believe that anyone who spends more than a decade in an American prison is pretty much a lost cause. Rehabilitation may seem like the goal in our way of doing things, but generally, people who cycle through the system are only going to be educated in what to do to find themselves back behind bars.

Yeah, there are some lost causes, but now everyone's getting thrown away, and that affects the sentencing too. Inner-city kid with a small-time record of possession and assault? Obviously a banger destined for society's trash can, despite the fact that half of the frat population has probably done the same things. Couple of car thefts? Could easily be a stupid kid. Drug dealer? Hell, that doesn't even have a victim.

Not to mention the job market pretty much won't put up with anything. White-collar employers can call in a legal immigrant, blue-collar ones an illegal one. Anything at all might count you out of a lot of fields (even a misdemeanor might mean you can't ever be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer) Multiple felonies and you might be able to beg your way into an unpaid intership scraping toilets. Anything drug at all and you can't get federal scholarships, which is understandable, I guess - otherwise the colleges might fill up with pot smokers.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:49 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


A concomitant issue is the explosion in the spread of SWAT teams. Local PDs have spent all this money and time putting together a crack team of assault goons and they look for any excuse to use them -- looks great on the ChopperCam shots on the 6 PM news. So now, instead of a cop knocking on your door, a team of black-garbed, helmeted bullyboys knocks your door down and sticks guns in your face.

What an improvement! I feel so much safer!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:55 PM on August 8, 2007


What an improvement! I feel so much safer!

Radley Balko's politics in general are probably much too libertarian for most here, but his dogged pursuit of cases of SWAT overreach is, as far as I know, unparalleled. You can find his work at http://www.theagitator.com/.
posted by erikgrande at 11:06 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


A concomitant issue is the explosion in the spread of SWAT teams.

Radley Balko wrote a brilliant article on paramilitary raids increasing.

These increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers...
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 11:07 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


The best part about SWAT teams is when the shoot an innocent person because they drew the weapon they'd gotten to protect themselves from the scary, scary criminals that they voted up the SWAT team for.

Hey, it's war on crime, and wars have friendly fire incidents.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:12 PM on August 8, 2007


(BitterOldPunk: "Sorry, wrong house!")
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:13 PM on August 8, 2007


In my state, based on the experience of people I know who have been on probation and parole both, they're pretty damn lax around here.

i was on probation for a felony drug possession charge quite a few years ago. three grams of mushrooms, the one time i've ever had drugs in my possession, i've got more lint in my pocket then i did drugs. i was somewhat lucky in that i was given a diversionary sentence in that i was given two years probation, after which my record would be sealed and i could move on (so i thought). probation consisted of showing up once a month for about six months or so, then every three months. i sat in a room with thirty or so other people and watched a video on ridiculous stuff such as drinking and boating. every once in awhile i would pee in a cup. it was kind of a joke, i never had a probation officer.

during my two years of probation i decided to begin a career in health care, following my mothers footsteps in taking care of disabled adults. i was up front from the start about having a record and they didn't care. six months or so later i got a call to not go into work, i was given the choice to quit or be fired, the state considered me a threat. since it was during my probation it showed up that i was a felon. so i went and did other stuff, but it was a horrible experience, i had finally found what i wanted to do as a career. i'm really good at being a care giver and wanted to be in medicine.

so right after my probation was up, early at one and a half years. i went back to work at the group home, but moved soon after to washington state. up until then i had only lived in minnesota, that's where the original mess happened in working in health care. i left before the state realized i was working again at the home. in washington it never came up, since i didn't have a record and i could honestly say i had never been convicted of a crime, everything was expunged. so for nine years i managed group homes, worked on an ambulance and was about to start nursing school. everywhere i worked i got glowing reviews. i was even instrumental in a non-verbal quadraplegic lady getting her Phd after ten years of her struggling.

i had to move back to minnesota to take care of family that has cancer. before i came back i got an awesome job at the local ER. after a week i get this letter from the state of MN that i can't work in health care. in all 49 other states i don't have a record, but in minnesota i still do. the dept of human services (that's who determined i was a danger ten years ago) isn't beholden to a judge's order for expungement, due to constitutional separation of government. judicial, legislative. so essentially i'm a felon all over again, but just in one state. it's been about ten years since i had my record cleared, i had forgotten about it even. so as soon as my ma passes from cancer i have to move out of the state again to start my career over. i can't even do nursing school in minnesota. I'M BARRED FROM LIVING IN THE STATE I GREW UP IN! the war on drugs is certainly wonderful.
posted by andywolf at 11:33 PM on August 8, 2007 [14 favorites]


UbuRoivas: no, they had the right house. That's how I got busted with 20 bucks worth of weed and a leaky bong. Members of the SWAT team threw me, my wife, and my teenaged stepson down on the floor of our kitchen, screaming, "DONT FUCKING MOVE!!! WHERE DO YOU KEEP THE DRUGS???" and pointing guns at us, while the rest of the team methodically ransacked our whole house, dumped all my books on the floor, emptied all my closets out, and destroyed not one but two doors in the process. This was after I told them that the pot was in the little box beside the end table and the bong was right beside it.

See, I was obviously dealing drugs because there was regular traffic at my house at 3 AM.

Of course, I was working as a bartender at the time and saving to buy a car, so different people would give me a ride home from work every night....at 3 AM.

And Mitrovarr, your comment dovetails nicely with the Radley Balko links above, especially regarding the case of Corey Maye. Except in that case, a cop got shot and the guy who shot him is in prison for life in Parchman, Mississippi.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:37 PM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


BitterOldPunk: it was a reference to Lard: Drug Raid at 4am
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:42 PM on August 8, 2007


(or did you pick that up - ie the repetition of "at 3am"...?)
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:46 PM on August 8, 2007


Dude, we so rule. ;)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:05 AM on August 9, 2007


EXT -- EXERCISE YARD -- DAY (1947)

Exercise period. Red plays catch with Heywood and Jigger,
lazily tossing a baseball around. Red notices Andy off to the
side. Nods hello. Andy takes this as a cue to amble over.
Heywood and Jigger pause, watching.

ANDY
(offers his hand)
Hello. I'm Andy Dufresne.

Red glances at the hand, ignores it. The game continues.

RED
The wife-killin' banker.

ANDY
How do you know that?

RED
I keep my ear to the ground. Why'd
you do it?

ANDY
I didn't, since you ask.

RED
Hell, you'll fit right in, then.
(off Andy's look)
Everyone's innocent in here, don't
you know that? Heywood! What are
you in for, boy?

HEYWOOD
Didn't do it! Lawyer fucked me!

Red gives Andy a look. See?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:12 AM on August 9, 2007


* torches a police car in celebration *
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:14 AM on August 9, 2007


However, if you think this (drug war driven imprisonment) is a major issue, then I think it's appropriate to cut whichever ones you think are "crazy" a little slack, or at least admit they're sane (i.e., agree with you) on this one point. Cherish the common ground. I respect all three for their stance on this issue.

Sure, but Ron Paul also thinks that only 5% of black people have "sensible political opinions" and goes on to say that we can "safely assume that 95% of the black males in [Washington D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal." Based on his opinion of the #1 target of the drug war, one might suggest that Ron Paul does not oppose the drug war because it's bad for people or because he cares about people but that Ron Paul opposes the drug war because he opposes the government being involved in absolutely anything besides paying his salary. Which is all fine and well if that's the most important thing you want in a politician, but he's still well out of the mainstream, even in Crazytown.
posted by cmonkey at 12:17 AM on August 9, 2007


Why are so many Americans in prison?

'Cause it's the closest that some of us will ever get to a pension?
posted by lekvar at 12:21 AM on August 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


In my rush to make this thread all about me me me I totally missed your comment, andywolf. Three grams of mushrooms is a FELONY? Holy shit. That's absurd! As is having it follow you through life. So much for sealed records in Minnesota. Of course, I imagine Cool Papa Bell would opine that you certainly learned your lesson the hard way, and thus the criminal justice system worked like a charm.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:41 AM on August 9, 2007


Sure, but Ron Paul also thinks that only 5% of black people have "sensible political opinions" and goes on to say that we can "safely assume that 95% of the black males in [Washington D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal."

Ron Paul did not write that, one of his staffers did. Ironically, it shows why he is such a good candidate. He kept it a secret because he felt he was partially responsible for it.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 12:47 AM on August 9, 2007


The most awesome part is, if you're a cop you get a free ride to commit whatever misdemeanors or felonies you like, as long as you don't rape a nun while a bus full of schoolkids watch. Our local paper is doing a series about the fact you are very unlikely to get a DUI if you're a cop, even if you're on duty.
posted by maxwelton at 1:56 AM on August 9, 2007


Why are so many Americans in prison?

Because you are so compassionate people? That's why you also lock up mentally sick people ... instead of giving them health care.

Watch this: PBS Frontline docu "The New Asylums"

Honestly, why does the richest country in the world hates stuff like universal health care for all, a just justice system (watch also "The Plea" and "Burden of Innocence") and a human prison system?

It's all about profit and not building a humanistic society - but it also is based on the ignorance of the average voter and biblical revenge motive that is rather "old bible style" ("an eye for an eye") instead of love, tolerance and forgiveness ...
posted by homodigitalis at 2:51 AM on August 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


For perspective and comparison with my own past experience in Australia, do any Americans want to enlighten me as to what might happen to you if, say, you were out fishing, and a one of your friends did a burn out in his car nearby, leading the cops to come down to your campsite, where they, say, find a bong and a 1/2 ounce of weed on you?

Because all it got me a $55 on-the-spot fine and a leaflet about how bad Cannabis is for me...
posted by Jimbob at 4:04 AM on August 9, 2007


He kept it a secret because he felt he was partially responsible for it.

I'm still not convinced any of you conservative types know what "responsible" means.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:46 AM on August 9, 2007


Felons can't vote.
posted by Eideteker at 4:47 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Bruce Western has some really interesting papers on punishment and inequality in America. Many are available for free through Google Scholar (lots focusing on post-incarceration employment, racism, skewing the labour market and disproportionate imprisonment rates).

He's also got a new book out, that I've yet to read, called Punishment and Inequality in America.
posted by xpermanentx at 5:41 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm as liberal and optimistic as can be, but the sad truth is that some criminals are simply sociopathic, will never respond to any amount of education or rehabilitation, and cannot be trusted free in society. You can usually tell who these monsters are based on the crimes they commit.

You see, the guy busted for carrying half an ounce of pot never hurt anybody. Let him go right now.

The guy who stole a TV probably needs more education and job training so he can earn an honest living. I'll bet he can be turned around.

Rapists and murderers... maybe. Be very careful, and give them psychiatric attention. They may have some remorse in them, and they may be releasable eventually.

But some are just too monstrous to ever be trusted. They see people as prey, and nothing more. They need to be locked away forever to protect society from their actions and influence. You can read about some of them here, here, here and here.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:21 AM on August 9, 2007


Because all it got me a $55 on-the-spot fine and a leaflet about how bad Cannabis is for me...

NORML State by State Information

Unless you are a minor and you only have paraphernalia in your possession it's pretty much guaranteed you'll be incarcerated immediately and sentenced fines upwards of thousands of dollars as well as some sort of probationary period depending on it being your first offense or not.

Read over BitterOldPunk and andywolfs posts carefully and you'll have enough second hand information to see how ridiculously counterproductive this type of treatment is. The sad part is these guys are the lucky ones, if you get caught in the wrong weight bracket your life is fucking over.

Possession of a literal handful of Marijuana and Mushrooms and look at what has happened to their lives as a result...

Hundreds of grams are all that separate misdemeanors from felonies in most cases, and that might not sound so crazy, but we're talking about cured and dried organic material that has grown naturally on this planet for longer than we've ever been here.

No excuses.

Three grams of mushrooms is a FELONY? Holy shit. That's absurd!

Minnesota appears to have some of the most archaic sentencing parameters with regard to this substance. Not as bad as Texas though, it would have been automatic state jail time.

Cool Papa Bell writes: I'm old

Yeah, great, here's a commemorative calendar with golden retriever puppies plastered on glossy stock. Do you feel better now?
It's just a ride and we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money, a choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.
posted by prostyle at 7:01 AM on August 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


You could just not do drugs, right?
posted by unSane at 7:44 AM on August 9, 2007


I listened to Freakanomics recently (it was a loooong car trip) and was blown away by how flippant his dismissal of the idea that prison time causes crime is. I think that most people share this pretty careless view.

While I agree with "career criminal generation" happening in prison; it's hard to ignore the effect of deterrence. With the escalation of DUI sentences, people take it more and more seriously. If the first DUI was "free" like it was for GW and Cheney drunk AROOM probably wouldn't be as deterred from taking, you know, a short drive. I'll be extra careful! Similarly with the kid who joy-rides a car.

One thing that I'm not certain about is whether the incentive there is static. If the first theft was lightly punished, and the second severely, would I be as deterred after the first one as if it was severe to start with? Maybe I'd be more scared, because I'd have seen how much jail really sucks. Maybe I'd be less, because I'd have learned how to get away with it better and disrespect for the law. Would need evidence to say.

Really, the criminology debate is much better if we pretend that we had sane drug policy. Get rid of the obviously harmless people who have no business in that system. We still have different kinds of prisons for different kinds of offenders, right? Or do they throw people caught with a scam or driving drunk in with the rapists and murderers?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:47 AM on August 9, 2007


You could just not do drugs, right?

You could just change your religion, right?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:22 AM on August 9, 2007


You could just not do drugs, right?

Like the men who have been running the country for the past 14 years?
posted by eddydamascene at 8:27 AM on August 9, 2007


You could just not do drugs, right?
posted by unSane at 10:44 AM on August 9 [+] [!]

Yeah, totally. There are all kinds of things you can not do, like drugs and downloading music and, oh, I don't know, saying bad things about the government and then you'll be perfectly safe even when the SWAT team is breaking in your neighbor's door. Assuming they have the address right.

So that's a really, really good idea and those of us who have never done anything wrong or bad have no reason to ever get upset about our insane current culture of incarceration or the prison system or the ever increasing, ever encroaching mentality of guilty until proven innocent.

Also, eponysterical.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:50 AM on August 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


mygothlaundrylist: why on earth do you conflate doing drugs, downloading music, and saying bad things against the government? Do you think those things are all alike? You sound like a teenager. Are you one?

My point is confined to the fact that if you don't do drugs you substantially reduce your likelihood of, y'know, being busted and going to jail. It's elective behaviour with known consequences (unless you're an addict, which is a different case entirely).

You can not do drugs, right?
posted by unSane at 9:07 AM on August 9, 2007


but we're talking about cured and dried organic material that has grown naturally on this planet for longer than we've ever been here.

Ah, yes. The "it's natural" argument. Common for the beer-fueled undergraduate.

"Dude, man. It's natural. What's could be wrong with that?"

Heroin is natural ... Arsenic is natural ...

A pack of wolves is natural ... The edge of a cliff is a natural ...

shamlessly stolen from a stand-up comic
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:31 AM on August 9, 2007


Way to miss the point unSane. I think, though my mind may be befogged by years of illegal and criminal drug use, that part of what mgl is trying to say is that we have moved from a society that PUNISHES criminals to a society that CREATES them in order to profit from them. And that chips away at everyones' rights, even fine upstanding citizens like yourself.

And CPB, I accept your pirated spiel at face value and ask only that you explain to me why it is better for our society that I buy an expensive artificial over-marketed anxiolytic rather than just grow a natural one in a planter on the deck.

Oh right, because the second option is illegal. Wonder why.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:38 AM on August 9, 2007


I was recently in the US and I found, twice, in cities a few hundreds of miles apart, Ron Paul For president stickers in public toilets.

that left me baffled.


They're going for the cottaging Republican vote.
posted by longbaugh at 9:47 AM on August 9, 2007


Ron Paul did not write that, one of his staffers did. Ironically, it shows why he is such a good candidate. He kept it a secret because he felt he was partially responsible for it.

I don't really feel like bickering about it, because he doesn't stand a chance in hell of unleashing his crazy paranoia on the world via the White House, but that's his second excuse for that newsletter. His first excuse, from 1996, boiled down to "I stand by them because they made sense in the context of the time". It's also hard to believe that he would not even look over an eight page newsletter to see what his staffers wrote, if he actually even needed staffers to write an eight page newsletter representing his views. That crazy racist can't have it both ways.
posted by cmonkey at 9:50 AM on August 9, 2007


Interesting op-ed from the mayor of Newark NJ on crime and incarceration in today's HuffPost.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:53 AM on August 9, 2007


No, unsane, I was attempting to point out that just not engaging in whatever behavior is currently called illegal is a really simplistic solution to the problems currently posed by our prison happy society and that also, it implies a fine disdain for issues faced by the rest of the society at large. People do not operate in a vacuum. Sure, you can not do drugs and that does increase your personal chances of not being locked up. Not to zero, as you could find out from my link above, but it makes them higher. Nevertheless, saying, well, you could just not do drugs and then walking away, washing your hands of the problem, is somewhat similar, I would say, to the quote that felix betachat cited.

Also, if you read the original article, the first link, you understand that it's actually not all about the war on drugs. It's about the dramatic increase in US prison populations over the last three decades. It points out that there's been a huge shift over those same years from a policy of rehabilitation to a far more draconian, punishment based criminal justice system. It also explores the relationship between prison terms and the underclass in America with particular attention to the fact that some 60% of African-American males have been incarcerated over the course of their lifetimes. So it just seemed to me, in the face of what I thought was a well written, well reasoned and interesting, if depressing as hell, article and a pretty coherent, thoughtful thread in response, that your short answer was, sorry, facile, glib, simplistic and, well, not wholly sane.

However, if you want to think I'm a teenager, I am so totally down with that. In fact, awesome.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:54 AM on August 9, 2007


Common for the beer-fueled undergraduate.

If you want to discuss drug policy with regard to incarceration figures that sounds suitable. If you want to limp back into this thread after being castigated for your ignorant slapdash simply to insult my intelligence in such a flippant manner I may be lead to further question the value of your participation.

Heroin is natural ... Arsenic is natural ...

A pack of wolves is natural ... The edge of a cliff is a natural ...


Unfortunately there are no laws to protect us from habitually involving ourselves in the demon grasp of Wolf Maul Fever (it's the newest hit on BME) nor the perilously addictive adrenaline rush of cliff jumping. When will the madness stop? Only Cool Papa Bell knows, so be sure to stay tuned next time for the recurring installment of Crotchety Old Asshole Shitting In The Thread*.
*COASITT side effects may include next day drowsiness, headaches, sleepiness, and dizziness. More serious side effects may include temporary amnesia, withdrawal symptoms when the regimen is stopped after being used on a regular basis, excessively outgoing or aggressive behavior, confusion, agitation, strange behavior, hallucinations, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

posted by prostyle at 9:54 AM on August 9, 2007


My point is confined to the fact that if you don't do drugs you substantially reduce your likelihood of, y'know, being busted and going to jail.

but you can still be on the straight and narrow and still be a victim of the drug war. asset forfeiture is a big way for the police dept to make money. you can lose your property if you rent to someone that is using it for drug related purposes. i've read of people that have lost houses, planes, boats, etc for having it used to smuggle/grow, without their knowledge.

in california in the '90s a man was killed by the police when they raided his home. they suspected he was growing marijuana in his backyard. he had money and lot's of property, but no pot, turns out the police had an itemized list of his property with estimated value.
posted by andywolf at 10:09 AM on August 9, 2007


If you're taking satire as an argument, I can't help you. But please, let's just grab some perspective before we storm the Bastille. People make it sound like every third person in jail was nabbed with a single joint in their pocket, as if there are millions of guys sitting in cells who simply don't understand why they're there.

And while yes, there are several incredibly unlucky fellows out there, it's not indicative of deliberate, system-wide corporate fascism. To suggest otherwise leans toward conspiracy theory.

Some of you just don't want to seem to admit that yes, Virginia, there are bad people out there, there is such as thing as recidivism, and that drug use can be a Bad Thing for society. Criminals and prisoners need help, yes. They also need to be separated from the rest of society while they get that help.

I venture to guess that very few of you have ever set foot in a real prison and have met real career criminals. Overnight in the county lockup doesn't count. In my career, I have. And trust me, 99.9999 percent of them aren't in there because of The Man.

I may be a curmudgeon, but I often find myself a curmudgeon among a pack of over-heated fools.

Have a nice day.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:19 AM on August 9, 2007


I don't think anyone in this thread is suggesting that we throw open the prison doors and let everyone out with hugs and a puppy, CPB. Nor is anyone suggesting that we all simply Tune in, Turn On, and Drop Out, man.

What we ARE suggesting is that US prisons are swollen with non-violent drug offenders who would be better served by treatment and monitoring than incarceration, and that doing so would open up some bunk space for the bad, bad people that actually should be locked away for evereyone's benefit.

But I guess it's easier to beat that straw man and accuse us all of being pot-smoking hippies who don't know how you rough-and-tough realists roll than to actually address the issues.

Have a nice day.

Get bent.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:46 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


This dialogue between CPB and BOP could really benefit from some statistics. What proportion of prison inmates are there for drug offenses, and how has that proportion changed over time?
posted by pax digita at 3:02 PM on August 9, 2007


pax digita: The Federal stats show an increase of total inmates of about 3% per year since 1995, with about 20% of State Prison inmates having a drug offense as their most serious offense in 2005, slightly down from 22% in 1995.

It's worth remembering that the majority of drug offenders are not handled at the state prison level, though.
posted by vorfeed at 3:24 PM on August 9, 2007


What proportion of prison inmates are there for drug offenses, and how has that proportion changed over time?

I can't answer that question without spending some time (although I'm sure others might), but a cursory search turned up this gem:

Recent testimony by the Department of Justice before the United States Sentencing Commission has stated that “approximately two-thirds of all federal prisoners are in prison for violent crimes or had a prior criminal record before being incarcerated.”

Statement of Christopher A. Wray, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, before the United
States Sentencing Commission, November 17, 2004.

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:27 PM on August 9, 2007


according to the DOJ between 1980 and 2005. this breaks things down between 2004 and 2005, showing a decrease in violent crime rates with a corresponding increase in drug related crimes. but another BOJ page says Drug offenders, up 37%, represented the largest source of jail population growth between 1996 and 2002.

posted by andywolf at 3:38 PM on August 9, 2007


Honestly, why does the richest country in the world hates stuff like universal health care for all, a just justice system (watch also "The Plea" and "Burden of Innocence") and a humane prison system?

Universal health care, fair justice, humane prisons, etc etc, those are the social equivalents to brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables. They're the boring, correct things to do, and there's no macho glamour to them. We Americans are a bunch of young rebels who hate nothing more than doing what our moms and teachers told us to do, and love nothing more than to flip the bird at them. Sure, we wanna be the good guys, but we recoil in horror when it means being good boys. In that situation, we'd rather be the bad guys than be good boys, and so far we're rich and spoiled enough to ignore the harm that being bad does to us; we simply refuse to grow the hell up and will buy our way out of it for as long as possible.
posted by PsychoKick at 4:02 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


what might happen to you if, say, you were out fishing, and a one of your friends did a burn out in his car nearby, leading the cops to come down to your campsite, where they, say, find a bong and a 1/2 ounce of weed on you?

Because all it got me a $55 on-the-spot fine and a leaflet about how bad Cannabis is for me...


That's because, unfortunately, we do not yet have laws against being a bogan, or being an accessory to being a bogan ;P
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:11 PM on August 9, 2007


"bogan".....

*googles*

Hey! I learned a new word! It's like an Aussie redneck!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:14 PM on August 9, 2007


I resemble that...
posted by Jimbob at 6:33 PM on August 9, 2007


ah, so where do you stand in this important quiz from bogan.com.au...?

Which is the best size beer for a BOGAN?

800mL Longneck
375mL Stubby
375mL Can
2L Darwin Stubby
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:13 PM on August 9, 2007


Wait.

In Australia, they sell 2 liter beers, and the fine for a half ounce of weed is $55.

WHY WAS I NOT INFORMED?

*emigrates*
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:33 PM on August 9, 2007


oh, that's nothing. pot is decriminalised in at least two states - you can grow up to five plants in your own backyard for personal use - and we have generally enlightened harm minimisation policies for drug use. a friend of mine works as a nurse/paramedic in a government-run injecting room, for example. it's totally outside of my experience, of course, but you can normally expect little more than a caution if you are found with personal-use quantities of drugs, or so i am told. i'm assuming that jimbob's copper was just collecting a token "fine" to buy a coupla dozen darwin stubbies for the long drive home on the no-speed-limit highways that they have up north.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:42 PM on August 9, 2007


Well, that fine was actually in South Australia (where it's decriminalised). Up here I think they're pretty tough on weed. Smoking dope distracts you from the task of drinking.
posted by Jimbob at 9:11 PM on August 9, 2007


BOP, whatever happened with the bust? that's a horrible story and i'm sorry it happened.
posted by andywolf at 9:48 PM on August 9, 2007


Taken to email.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:43 PM on August 9, 2007


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