The US has less than 5% of the world’s people but 22% of its prisoners — a statistic which ought to terrify every freedom-loving person. There is no escaping the conclusion that we have become a police state, over-regulated and over-enforced, steadily brutalized whether on the streets or behind bars, and what has it earned us? Much higher crime rates than the rest of the developed world! The right has preferred to blame culture or immigration, yet countries with far higher proportions of the foreign-born in the general population continue to have crime rates a small fraction of ours. So what else could it be?

We can start by reforming our sentencing guidelines, as the concept of deterrence through stiff punishment has been disproven on the evidence over and over again. No matter how long the prison terms, poor and desperate people will feel pressed into crimes, so instead of penalizing poverty, why not attempt to alleviate it? This has worked very well all across the developed world already, and it is time the US caught up to the evidence. We need to abolish three-strikes laws, remove mandatory-minimum sentencing rules, fully fund the public defender program, ban the useless and barbaric practice of capital punishment, and end all cash-bail systems which unjustly lock up the poor.

The evidence has long shown that higher rates of crime are correlated with poverty and discrimination. Instead of terrorizing poor communities with heavily-armed enforcers, we should invest in businesses and civic renewal projects. Raise the standard of living and provide decent jobs, and the crime rate always falls. In addition, we need to address the wild disparities in stops, arrests, and sentencing across ethnic and racial lines. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by the militarization of our society, and these policies have bred resentments which only make solving the core issues harder.

We need fully to break the school-to-prison pipeline, and that means taking the emphasis off of law enforcement and placing it on things like counselling and adequate resources for success. Why are we sending children to schools that have police officers present but no nurses, psychologists, or guidance counsellors? Back in the 1970s the French philosopher observed that schools were, by nature, akin to prisons — the United States has been taking his far too literally, throwing up high fences and treating kids like criminals.

US prisons themselves are notoriously bad for the rich world, and there are four good steps we can take to reverse that situation. First, ban all for-profit prisons; no-one should be in the business of locking up citizens, as it creates a corrupt system of incentives that do nothing to make anyone safer. Second, we should pass a comprehensive prisoner bill of rights, and make sure that the country’s entire corrections staff understand that they are dealing with human beings and fellow citizens. Third, we should address the relative lack of emphasis on rehabilitation and offer more services aimed at successfully reintegrating the formerly-incarcerated into the general public, which would greatly curb recidivism rates. Finally, we need to slash the current prisoner population, and can do so by offering amnesty to all non-violent drug offenders.

The current system has been getting terrible results, costing the taxpayer countless billions to house an ever-growing population that is being conditioned to continue in a life of crime. We can break the cycle, and see a collapse in our crime rates comparable to the rest of the rich world, but it will take a paradigm shift away from retribution and deterrence, and toward rehabilitation and prevention. The reward will be a safer and more prosperous country, without the moral stain of holding more people behind bars than dictatorships like Communist China.

Photo by Bob Jagendorf, Courtesy Flickr, – CC BY-SA 2.0