- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008


For many years, politicians on both sides of the aisle went to extreme lengths to avoid the perceived political suicide of being “soft on crime.” Republicans and Democrats alike play politics with crime policy. Former President Clinton stood watch over the nation’s largest prison expansion, and the current administration hasn’t changed course. As a result of these policies, the United States, by far, has the highest incarceration rates in the world. The human toll of this sort of mass incarceration is incalculable. Communities are devastated by the absence of our sons, brother, fathers, mothers, daughters, sisters, states sacrifice public school funding to build more prisons, and people living behind bars are too often subjected to abusive and brutal prison conditions. And our country’s over-reliance on incarceration doesn’t even make us safer.

Given these facts, if the presidential candidates are serious about addressing crime, they’ll reverse the trends of the past and rectify historic missteps by investing in practices proven to advance safety and reduce our bloated prison system.

We have tried to arrest our way out of every social problem imaginable, from drug addiction to homelessness to immigration. If tough-on-crime polices worked, the United States would have the lowest crime rates in the world. But as criminologists know, it doesn’t work that way. For example, the City of Philadelphia spends nearly $1 billion on public safety — more than half of this budget is spent on policing. In comparison, Philadelphia spends only $35 million on education. The reward is that Philadelphia’s incarceration rates are among the highest in the country. Unfortunately, so are its crime rates. The nearly billion-dollar investment in lock ‘em up strategies has not made the streets of Philadelphia safer.

The devastation incarceration has wrought in communities of color is the most critical civil rights issue facing Americans today. Although people of color make up approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise nearly two-thirds of the prison population. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds that one-in-nine African American adult men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated. Racial disparities between whites and African Americans are particularly evident in drug imprisonment rates. African Americans and whites use illicit substances at similar rates, but African Americans are admitted to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. Researchers attributed disparate policing practices, disparate treatment before the courts, mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws and differences in the availability of drug treatment for African Americans compared with whites as reasons for the significant racial disparities seen in drug imprisonment rates.

This presidential election will decide who will set the agenda for future crime-prevention initiatives. The good news is that the public is more ready than ever for sound public policy. Polling shows that the public actually supports and is willing to pay for policies that include rehabilitative services, housing, employment and education. These are proven approaches that reduce crime and recidivism evidence-based practices, which have undergone rigorous experimental inquiry, and have been shown to have proven public safety benefits. When more people have jobs, fewer crimes are committed. A study by the Heritage Foundation found for every 1 percent increase in civilian labor force participation, violent crime is expected to decrease by 8.8 incidents per 100,000 people.

So let’s demand accountability from the candidates. Not only do we want to avoid the mistakes of past, but it’s time to help rebuild our communities and our nation with sound policies that promote safety and shrink our prison system. With 1-out-of-100 Americans behind bars, we can’t afford anything else.

Sheila Bedi is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide