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Drug War and Mass Incarceration



For more on racial disparity in prisons see Immigration

The Prison Industrial Complex

Two and a half million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, more than in any other country in the world. While the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population, it has 23% of the world’s prisoners. There are more Black men under correctional supervision—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than there were slaves in 1850. And the total number of people under correctional supervision in the U.S.—over seven million—is greater than were in Stalin’s Gulag at its height.

These statistics and the increasing rate of incarceration do not reflect a growth in violent crime, which has actually declined during the last three decades, according to government data. Rather, they are the result of policy changes that promote greater rates of prosecution and longer prison terms. These policies, like “determinate sentencing,” “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes” laws, deny judges discretion and remove the human element from sentencing. They have filled U.S. prisons with millions of nonviolent offenders—particularly drug offenders from poor and Black communities where the policing and enforcement of drug laws is disproportionately high. The passage of more and stricter federal and state sentencing guidelines combined with heightened drug war enforcement has led to the quadrupling of the number of Americans incarcerated since 1980, with 70% of prisoners today consisting of minorities and people of color.

Who Benefits?

The exponential rise in the prison population parallels the growth in the private prison industry, which began in 1984 when Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was awarded its first contract to administer a prison in Hamilton County, TN. Since then private prison corporations have expanded to control over 415 state and federal facilities housing over 130,000 prisoners. Like the military and biotech industries, the prison industry has used lobbying and political campaign contributions to promote its own growth and profit. The top two prison corporations, CCA and GEO Group, contributed over $2.2 million to state political campaigns in 2010. These corporations have also been successful at placing their own lawyers and lobbyists in state offices where “tough on crime” legislation is being considered. For example, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s deputy Chief of Staff, Paul Senseman is a former lobbyist for CCA who helped draft the State’s notorious anti-immigration law that will—if it survives in court—greatly increase Arizona’s incarceration rates (and CCA’s profit margins).

The criminal justice system in the U.S. has become a false solution to the social and economic problems resulting from increasing poverty and inequality. Rather than funding education, affordable housing, and social services that reduce poverty and promote healthy communities, politicians have been bought off by a prison industry that feeds its own greed by increasing human misery. Given the current level of corruption and corporate collusion within both major political parties, a broad, grassroots movement of education, protest and civil disobedience will be needed to shift our national priorities from corporate profits to the common good.

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For more than a generation, the major “growth industry” in impoverished communities has been the illegal drug industry. Persistent, trans-generational poverty is directly responsible for the fact that the U.S. now leads the world in imprisoning its own people: 2.5 million, by the latest count, with more than 5 million more under some form of court supervision. (China, with its 2.5 billion people, runs a poor second.) Although most of the prison population is white, people of color are disproportionately represented, leading many analysts to declare that the mass incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos has created a new caste of unemployable "untouchables." Only a massive public works, community development, and job training program can end the destruction of American communities and stop the shameful criminalization of poverty.
Source: 99% Deficit Report: How to Create Jobs, Reduce the Wealth Divide and Control Spending, October2011/Occupy Washington, DC.




Drug War Facts

"The prison population began to climb in the late 1970s as states and the federal government cracked down on crime. One turning point was New York State’s 1973 imposition of mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses, under the administration of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.  Other states followed. Initiatives included mandatory sentences for repeat armed career criminals. Congress, in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (18 U.S.C. 3651), repealed federal courts’ authority to suspend criminal sentences and made other changes.  In 1994, California voters and legislators approved Proposition 184, the so-called Three Strikes Law. Among other things, the law set a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for three-time offenders with prior serious or violent felony convictions." Source: Kirchhoff, Suzanne M., "Economic Impacts of Prison Growth," Congressional Research Service, (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, April 13, 2010), p. 7.

"The U.S. incarcerates nearly 2.4 million people, including people held pretrial and those sentenced for an offense; if they were all in one state, it would be the 36th most populated, between New Mexico and Nevada.  No other country in the world incarcerates as many people as the United States. China, a country of 1.3 billion people—about four times as many people as the U.S.15—is second, incarcerating 1.6 million people.  Source: Petteruti, Amanda and Fenster, Jason, "Finding Direction: Expanding Criminal Justice Options by Considering Policies of Other Nations," Justice Policy Institute (Washington, DC: April 2011), p. 10-11.

“Certain private prison companies, according to a recent report by Detention Watch Network, spend large sums of money to lobby the House of Representatives, the Senate, and several federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons (which incarcerates over 200,000 prisoners at any given time) and the Department of Homeland Security (which detains over 30,000 immigrants at any given time).238 According to nonprofit groups, CCA alone spent over $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009, “often employing five or six firms at the same time,”239 and in 2010, CCA spent another $970,000 lobbying the federal government." Source: Shapiro, David, "Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration," American Civil Liberties Union (New York, NY: November 2, 2011), p. 38.

"About 16% of federal prisoners (33,830) and nearly 7% of state prisoners (94,365) were housed in private facilities on December 31, 2010." Source: Guerino, Paul; Harrison, Paige M.; and Sabol, William J., "Prisoners in 2010," Bureau of Justice Statistics, (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, December 2011), NCJ 236096, p. 7.

"The Federal Bureau of Prisons operated at 36% above reported capacity at yearend 2010." Source: Guerino, Paul; Harrison, Paige M.; and Sabol, William J., "Prisoners in 2010," Bureau of Justice Statistics, (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, December 2011), NCJ 236096, p. 7.

"Prior to 1972, the number of prisoners had grown at a steady rate that closely tracked growth rates in the general population. Between 1925 (the first year national prison statistics were officially collected) and 1972, the number of state prisoners increased from 85,239 to 174,379.2 Starting in 1973, however, the prison population and imprisonment rates began to rise precipitously. This change was fueled by stiffer sentencing and release laws and decisions by courts and parole boards, which sent more offenders to prison and kept them there for longer terms.  In the nearly five decades between 1925 and 1972, the prison population increased by 105 percent; in the four decades since, the number of prisoners grew by 705 percent.  Adding local jail inmates to state and federal prisoners, the Public Safety Performance Project calculated in 2008 that the overall incarcerated population had reached an all-time high, with 1 in 100 adults in the United States living behind bars." Source: Pew Center on the States, "Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years," (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2010), p. 2.

"... annual operating costs are $25,500 per federal prisoner, $26,000 per state prisoner and per jail inmate, $2,800 per parolee, and $1,300 per probationer, based on Public Safety Performance Project (2007, 2009) and authors’ estimates." Source: Schmitt, John; Warner, Kris and Gupta, Sarika, "The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration," Center for Economic and Policy Research (Washington, DC: June 2010), p. 11.

"Today, private companies imprison roughly 130,000 prisoners and, according to one group, 16,000 civil immigration detainees in the United States at any given time. As states send more and more people to prison, they funnel ever greater amounts of taxpayer money to private prison operators. By 2010, annual revenues of the two top private prison companies alone stood at nearly $3 billion." Note: The two prison companies are "Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (then called Wackenhut Corrections Corporation)." Source: Shapiro, David, "Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration," American Civil Liberties Union (New York, NY: November 2, 2011), pp. 9 & 13.

"Taxpayers spent about $68.7 billion in 2008 to feed, clothe, and provide medical care to prisoners in county jails, state and federal prisons and facilities housing legal and illegal aliens facing possible deportation.46 From 1982 to 2002, state and federal spending on corrections, not adjusted for inflation, rose by 423%, from $40 to $209 per U.S. resident.47 Corrections spending, as a share of state budgets, rose faster than health care, education, and natural resources spending from 1986 to 2001. The average cost of housing a prisoner for a year was about $24,000 in 2005, though rates vary from state to state."Source: Kirchhoff, Suzanne M., "Economic Impacts of Prison Growth," Congressional Research Service, (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, April 13, 2010), p. 9.

"The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, 756 per 100,000 of the national population, followed by Russia (629), Rwanda (604), St Kitts & Nevis (588), Cuba (c.531), U.S. Virgin Is. (512), British Virgin Is. (488), Palau (478), Belarus (468), Belize (455), Bahamas (422), Georgia (415), American Samoa (410), Grenada (408) and Anguilla (401). Almost three fifths of countries (59%) have rates below 150 per 100,000. Source: Walmsley, Roy, "World Prison Population List (Seventh Edition)" (Kings College, London, England: International Centre for Prison Studies, 2007), p. 1.

States spent $51.1 billion on Corrections in 2010 alone. To compare, states spent $164.8 billion on higher education and only $26.6 billion on public assistance. Source: National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), "State Expenditure Report 2010: Examining Fiscal 2009-2011 State Spending," (Washington, DC: NASBO, 2011), pp. 22, 30, 52.

"In 1987, the states collectively spent $10.6 billion of their general funds—their primary pool of discretionary tax dollars—on corrections. Last year, they spent more than $44 billion, a 315 percent jump, data from the National Association of State Budget Officers show. Adjusted to 2007 dollars, the increase was 127 percent. Over the same period, adjusted spending on higher education rose just 21 percent." Source: Pew Center on the States, "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008," (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, February 2008), p. 4.

"Incarceration has not been definitively shown to reduce crime rates. Bruce Western at Harvard University recently found that only 10 percent of the crime decline in the 1990s was due to increased use of incarceration. Between 1998 and 2007, states that had the greatest increases in incarceration rates did not necessarily see a corresponding drop in crime rates. Some states (Maryland Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas) lowered their incarceration rates and still experienced a drop in crime rates.8 Such uneven results do not support continued over-reliance on incarceration, particularly in a time of fiscal crisis." Source: Justice Policy Institute, "Pruning Prisons: How Cutting Corrections Can Save Money and Protect Public Safety," (Washington, DC: May 2009), p. 5.

"Compared to Non-blacks, California’s African-American population are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, 12 times more likely to be imprisoned for a marijuana felony arrest, and 3 times more likely to be imprisoned per marijuana possession arrest. Overall, as Figure 3 illustrates, these disparities accumulate to 10 times’ greater odds of an African-American being imprisoned for marijuana than other racial/ethnic groups." Source: Males, Mike, "Misdemeanor marijuana arrests are skyrocketing and other California marijuana enforcement disparities," Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (San Francisco, CA: November 2011), p. 6.

"In 70 out of 76 precincts, black and Latino New Yorkers accounted for more than 50 percent of stops, and in 33 precincts they accounted for more than 90 percent of stops. In the 10 precincts with the lowest black and Latino populations (such as the 6th Precinct in Greenwich Village), blacks and Latinos accounted for more than 70 percent of stops in six of those precincts." Source: "Stop-and-Frisk 2011: NYCLU Briefing," New York Civil Liberties Union (New York, NY: American Civil Liberties Union of New York State, May 9, 2012), p. 2.

"Young black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. Though they account for only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406). Ninety percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent." Source: "Stop-and-Frisk 2011: NYCLU Briefing," New York Civil Liberties Union (New York, NY: American Civil Liberties Union of New York State, May 9, 2012), p. 2.

"Of the 685,724 stops in 2011, 605,328 were of people who had engaged in no unlawful behavior as evidenced by the fact they were not issued a summons nor arrested. Of those, 310,390 were black (53.1 percent), 197,251 Latino (33.7 percent), and 53,726 white (9.2 percent). Young black and Latino males bore the brunt of these stops, accounting for 242,317 stops of innocent people (42.9 percent)." Source: "Stop-and-Frisk 2011: NYCLU Briefing," New York Civil Liberties Union (New York, NY: American Civil Liberties Union of New York State, May 9, 2012), p. 15.

"Mass arrests and incarceration of people of color – largely due to drug law violations – have hobbled families and communities by stigmatizing and removing substantial numbers of men and women. In the late 1990s, nearly one in three African-American men aged 20-29 were under criminal justice supervision,  while more than two out of five had been incarcerated – substantially more than had been incarcerated a decade earlier and orders of magnitudes higher than that for the general population. Today, 1 in 15 African-American children and 1 in 42 Latino children have a parent in prison, compared to 1 in 111 white children. In some areas, a large majority of African-American men – 55 percent in Chicago, for example – are labeled felons for life, and, as a result, may be prevented from voting and accessing public housing, student loans and other public assistance." Source: "Drug Courts Are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use" Drug Policy Alliance (New York, NY: March 2011), p. 9.

"Looking at the numbers through the lenses of race and gender reveals stark differences. Black adults are four times as likely as whites and nearly 2.5 times as likely as Hispanics to be under correctional control. One in 11 black adults—9.2 percent—was under correctional supervision at year end 2007. And although the number of female offenders continues to grow, men of all races are under correctional control at a rate five times that of women." Source: Pew Center on the States, "One in 31: The Long Reach of American Coorections," (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2009), p. 5.

"The spectacular growth in the American penal system over the last three decades was concentrated in a small segment of the population, among young minority men with very low levels of education. By the early 2000s, prison time was a common life event for this group, and today more than two-thirds of African American male dropouts are expected to serve time in state or federal prison. These demographic contours of mass imprisonment have created a new class of social outsiders whose relationship to the state and society is wholly different from the rest of the population." Source: Western , Bruce; Pettit, Becky, "Incarceration & social inequality," Dædalus (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 2010), p. 16.

Source: Drug War Facts

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