Thursday, April 12, 2012

Are Americans Evil?

Well, more evil than the citizens of other countries?

Are they less moral?

Or at least much more likely to break the law?

I dunno. The folks I encounter seem to be a fairly well-behaved bunch, but maybe they have me fooled. Maybe they're just waiting for the right moment to lift my wallet, break into your home, or click on one of those "I have read the terms and agree to abide by them" buttons without really having read a thing.

I was moved to wonder about all this by a piece I read in the April 2 issue of Time magazine. That piece (written by Fareed Zakaria) was entitled "Incarceration Nation" and reminded me once again that the US throws people into jails and prisons at a rate that's far higher than that of just about any other country.

"Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in history is a fundamental fact of our country today," Fareed quotes Adam Gopnik as saying (apparently in The New Yorker). "Overall, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America - more than 6 million - than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height."

Of course Russia in Stalin's day had fewer people than America does today. And I doubt that few correctional facilities outside the Deep South are anywhere near as bad as Stalin's concentration camps were. Still... If Wikipedia's figures are to be believed, there are 32 states with a population under 6 million. Which means that we now have more people behind bars than live in the entire state of Wisconsin. Or Colorado. Or Nebraska, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Wyoming combined.

According to Fareed, the US has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. Brazil has 242. Mexico has 208. Britain has 153. South Korea has 97. France has 96. Germany has 90. Japan has just 63.

Or to put it another way (as Pat Robertson allegedly has), the US has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners.

Fareed goes on to say this: "[T]he money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons vs. $5.7 billion on the UC system and state colleges. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and 21 prisons. A college student costs the state $8,667 per year; a prisoner costs it $45,006 a year."

It wasn't always this way. The year Ronald Reagan was first elected president (1980), the US incarceration rate was just 150 per 100,000.

What has happened since?

The so-called War on Drugs.

According to Fareed, "Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America's federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions."

About a trillion dollars have allegedly been spent on this war in the last 40 years. Fareed quotes a report written by some famous people (George Shultz and Paul Volcker among them) as calling this war a failure. I can't recall ever reading about anyone declaring it a great success.

Are Americans using and selling drugs at a much higher rate than the citizens of other countries?

Does that make them less moral if they are?

Or merely sicker?

Or something else?

Are other countries more accepting of drug use? Or are their citizens less likely to use drugs? Or are other countries more likely to treat drug addiction as a medical issue than a criminal one?

I dunno.

But I do find it ironic that politicians and others can prattle on and on about how great and exceptional and gOd-blessed we are as a people while saying virtually nothing about our extraordinary high incarceration rate.

If we really are so great, why do so many people feel the need to find solace in drugs?

If we really are so great, why can't we think of anything better to do with drug users and their suppliers than to throw them in jail?

If so many more Americans than non-Americans really do deserve to be behind bars, are Americans really that much more evil than others?

If so many more Americans than non-Americans really don't deserve to be behind bars, are America's leaders and criminal justice system that much worse than those of other countries?

It seems that something is severely out of whack here. I'm not sure exactly what it may be, but whatever it is, it's hard for me to escape the conclusion that it reflects very poorly upon us as a country.

The fact that we're in the middle of a campaign season in which lots of lesser issues have been discussed while this one hasn't even been raised (nor seems likely to be) does little to redeem us in my eyes....

1 comment:

  1. "Or to put it another way (as Pat Robertson allegedly has), the US has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners."
    Is this your April Fools posting and the clue is you are citing Pat Robertson as an authority?
    How many prisoners does China admit to holding? It used to be the entire country, but I've noticed a lot more Chinese mainlanders travelling than when I was younger.