US war on crime has nothing to do with crime

The land of the unfree

Published on LeMondeDiplo, by Andrew Oxford, September 2009.

One in 35 Americans are caught up in the corrections system and incarceration is on the rise. Why is this when the US crime rate has dropped so remarkably?

The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other nation. It has only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. If you count everyone ensnared in the corrections system – on probation or parole – millions of Americans (one of every 31) are anything but free in the land of liberty (1) …

… The war on crime has nothing to do with crime. As Dr Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Harvard University, points out: “Crime rates themselves may not have driven the prison boom but long-standing fears about crime and other social anxieties may form the backdrop for the growth in imprisonment.” (5) While violent crime did drop remarkably in the 1990s, the role “tough on crime” policies played is debatable. Instead, changes in local policing tactics and economic growth should be credited.  

Incarceration rates rose steadily throughout this period thanks to the war on drugs, which received more and more funds from federal authorities. In the 1960s drugs were beginning to emerge in the counter culture and working-class neighbourhoods, and their burgeoning popularity and expanding market were seen as a sign of lawlessness. Lawmakers decided to take the war to the streets and create heavy-handed penalties for even petty possession. These laws remain on the books and are enforced by a wide range of agencies, bureaus and police departments, all receiving increasing sums from the federal government. “Drugs draw many into the system who do not actively contribute to crime” explains Western. He says the effect incarceration had on crime rates was small. The government has wasted billions on treating as a crime wave what is really a pressing public health issue.

Yet despite the lacklustre results of the zero-tolerance “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to drugs and petty crimes, America continues to break records in terms of incarceration rates. Why? “That’s the $100,000 question,” says Tracy Velasquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. “Our political system tends to reinforce an increase in incarceration; [for politicians] there’s a need to be tough on crime” … (full text).

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