Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The land of the unfree.

ABC News has a disturbing report on the growth in the U.S. prison population:

"The nation's inmate population is at an all-time high, and has seen its largest year-to-year increase in six years, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report.

The findings, examining the time frame from July 2005 to June 2006, totaled up more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in the nation's federal and state prisons and local jails. That includes an increase of 62,037, or 2.8 percent, compared with numbers available in 2005. In other words, one out of every 133 U.S. residents is behind bars."

Unfortunately, the ABC piece does not answer a question that comes to mind here, namely, "How does that 1-in-133 figure compare with other countries?"

Fortunately, a piece in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine, titled "Prison Planet," does, although it uses different math to do so. Instead of using 1-in-xxx ratios to compare nations, it uses xxx out of 100,000. The Bureau of Justice Statistics number cited by ABC, 1 in 133, works out to 752 per 100,000.

The Foreign Policy piece also uses data through 2005, rather than 2006. Given that the news of the day is the 2005-2006 increase in the prison population, it makes sense that the ratio cited in "Prison Planet" is somewhat lower than the BJS number: 737 per 100,000.

What makes less sense, what defies all sense - legal, moral, economic or common - is that this number, this ratio is the highest in the world.

That's right:

"The United States locks up more of its citizens than any other nation, owing mainly to its tough drug policies and mandatory sentencing laws."

More than Russia (611 per 100,000), more than Cuba (487 per 100,000), more than three times as many as Iran (214).

The harm that this does to the nation's citizenry beggars description; the citizenry's complacent acceptance of that harm defies comprehension.

Except that I am and have been complacent enough to comprehend it a little. So long as the harm is indirect rather than direct, I don't necessarily feel it. Harm without pain is easy to endure. It is even easier when those who are directly harmed include some who...well, whose welfare does not concern me, and whom I might regard as a potential threat to me - those whom I, in some measure, fear. Being the land of the unfree is a result of being the home of the unbrave.

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