I appreciated reading the July 3 column by Michael Gerson on the state of mass incarceration in this country. However, the piece did not fully address the disconnect between crime and incarceration in the United States. Even as violent crime rates have dropped over the past couple of decades, incarceration rates have steadily risen.
This is because the definition of crime has been expanded. Today, many inmates are not behind bars for the type of violent crimes people tend to fear. Rather, they are incarcerated under the umbrella of a so-called war on drugs, largely for low-level drug convictions. As a direct result of this war on drugs, upward of 500,000 predominantly young African-American men are incarcerated in the United States today.
Conflating illegal drugs and violent crime effectively secured public support for a tough-on-drugs political atmosphere. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that of the 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, 25 percent of them are there for drug offenses. Unnecessarily harsh drug crime legislation, like mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, garner petty drug offenders disproportionately lengthy prison sentences. Increasingly, three-strikes-and-you're-out laws are landing repeat misdemeanor drug offenders life sentences behind bars, often without chance for parole.
As public sentiment begins to call into question the wisdom of bankrolling this mass incarceration, the need for comprehensive drug policy reform has never been more obvious. Sensible reform for nonviolent drug offenses is a no-brainer first step toward lowering this country's prison population without compromising public safety.
Emily Gray Brosious