Lithwick: Our Real Prison Problem

The public-opinion two-step on the wisdom of closing the prison camp at Guantánamo is fascinating, and not just because, as recent polling shows, Americans are inclined to keep it open forever. The current legal meltdown over what to do with the 240 prisoners shows that Americans actually care a lot about prisons, prisoners and prison reform, but only when the inmates threaten to tumble out into their backyards.

That's what Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) may be counting on as he launches an ambitious effort to reform U.S. prisons. In addition to proposing a massive 18-month review of the prison system, Webb wants to work toward reducing the overall incarceration rate while refocusing efforts toward locking up truly dangerous criminals and gang leaders, decreasing prison violence, establishing meaningful reentry programs for ex-offenders, reforming the nation's drug policies and improving treatment of the mentally ill. It's not quite as dramatic as the prospect of Abu Zubaydah bedding down at the Supermax prison in Colorado, but Webb wants to reignite the subject of prison reform, because he's convinced that when it comes to their prison problem, Americans need only know how to count.

Here are the facts about America's prisons, according to Webb:

The United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, houses nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners. As Webb has explained it, "Either we're the most evil people on earth or we're doing something wrong." We incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents—nearly five times the world average. Approximately one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail or on supervised release. Local, state and federal spending on corrections amounts to about $70 billion per year and has increased 40 percent over the past 20 years.

Webb has no problem locking up the real baddies. He just wants us to recognize that warehousing the nation's mentally ill and drug addicts in crowded correctional facilities tends mostly to create a mass of meaner, more violent, less employable people at the exit. The Justice Department estimates that 16 percent of the adult inmates in American prisons—more than 350,000 of those incarcerated—suffer from mental illness; the percentage in juvenile custody is even higher. Justice statistics for 2007 showed that nearly 60 percent of the state prisoners serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence, and four out of five drug arrests were for drug possession, not sales.

Webb also reminds us that while drug use varies little by ethnic group, African-Americans—estimated at 14 percent of regular drug users—make up 56 percent of those in state prison for drug crimes.

So why does the senator from one of the country's most rabid "lock 'em up" states believe that with two wars raging, an economy collapsing and America's Next Top Model beckoning seductively, Americans are ready to grapple with his new legislation—the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009—which establishes a blue-ribbon panel to review the nation's entire prison system?

Perhaps public opinion is finally shifting away from fear-based appeals to personal safety. If Americans actually have the conversation about our disastrous prison policies, we'll understand the trends all move in very dangerous directions: we lock up more people, for less violent crime, at ever greater expense, breeding more dangerous criminals who often come out unemployable, violent and isolated.

The Guantánamo problem we've finally started to grapple with—it's a dangerous place with some dangerous people—is a mere speck in the eye of America's larger prison program. An AP story last week indicated that a small Montana town was willing to take all the Guantánamo prisoners because, ultimately, a jail is a jail. If we are so worried about locking up a few terrorists for life in maximum-security U.S. jails, shouldn't we be worrying about the folks who are already there? As Dennis Jett observed recently in The Miami Herald, "even if everyone at Guantánamo were transferred to a U.S. prison it would amount to an increase of less than one hundredth of one percent in the total number incarcerated in this country."

Compared with the powder keg of our domestic prison system, Guantánamo looks pretty benign.

If we are going to have a national panic attack about the failings of the criminal justice system after 9/11, let's be honest that the dangers of a handful of Guantánamo prisoners rejoining the battlefield is far more remote than the dangers festering in our own jails and prisons. Americans worried about what's happening in their own backyards would be well advised to recognize that the U.S. prison system is one burgeoning backyard that won't be contained, ignored or walled off forever.

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