Nobody puts ’em away like the U.S.A.

That’s the mind-boggling gist of a new study showing that more than one in 100 American adults are currently in jail. That’s 2,319,258 jailbirds, at an average annual cost of more than $23,000 per inmate.

The report, from the Pew Center on the States, showed that spending for incarceration has gone from $11 million to $49 million, a rate six times greater than the increase in spending for higher education.

The culprit appears to be a spate of “get tough on crime” legislation sponsored by politicians who know that law-and-order legislation is popular with the public. While well-intentioned, “three strikes” laws and other similar measures have mandated lengthy sentences for petty crimes, leaving the states to foot an ever-growing bill for room and board.

That might be tolerable if such laws were really making much of a difference, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The report concluded that the burgeoning prison population “is saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime.”

According to an Associated Press report, Kentucky governor Steve Beshear noted in his annual budget speech that the state’s crime rate had increased only about 3 percent in the past 30 years, while the state’s inmate population has increased by 600 percent.

The report also updated some staggering statistics regarding the racial inequity of prison life: one out of nine black males between 20 and 34 is in prison. For the overall population of men in that age group, the rate is one out of 30. The rate of imprisonment for African-American women is also well above the average.

Worldwide, America leads the world — by far — in locking people up. Even China, with a reputation for oppression and a population of 1.3 billion (more than four times the U.S. population), has just 1.5 million behind bars, according to the report.

America cannot afford to continue this trend, and not just because it’s too expensive. There have to be better solutions than just putting people on ice when they get into trouble. The report cited Kansas and Texas as states that are making greater use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and employing sanctions other than reimprisonment for offenders who commit technical violations of parole and probation rules. Other states will need to act, and other options must be developed, lest more lives be wasted.

A nation that celebrates being “the land of the free” shouldn’t be keeping more than one percent of its population in jail.

[Graphic from]

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