Friday, May 12, 2006

Texas' high imprisonment rate a stain on the national character

Doc Berman at the inestimable Sentencing Law and Policy blog brings news via Andrew Sullivan of a new report charting world incarceration rates: Unsurprisingly, the Land of the Free leads the pack. The United States incarcerates a far greater percentage of our population than any other country, reports the Sixth Annual World Prison Population List (pdf), imprisoning 714 adult residents per 100,000 nationwide, while 3/5 of nations incarcerated less than 150 per 100,000.

All I can say is, "714"? Pshaw!

Welcome to Texas, baby. Last I saw we rock out here at 1,035 per 100,000. Nothing says "we love freedom" like locking up one out of every hundred adults. Andrew Sullivan picked up on that, too: "Texas, by the way, has an imprisonment rate of well over 1,000," he wrote on his blog. "There's no country on the planet - no dictatorship on earth - as comfortable with locking people up as the state of Texas."

He's got a point. Including those on probation and parole, the Justice Policy Institute calculated that
one in 20 Texans at any one time are under control of the criminal justice system! Take that, Belarus! And what'd we get for it? According to JPI, "Despite adding more than 100,000 prisoners this decade [1990 to 2000], Texas' crime rate has declined more slowly than other large states."

Of course, my friends in Louisiana would hasten to add that the Bayou State has since surpassed Texas in the ignominious category of who imprisons the highest percentage of its citizens, especially after of bunch of their people left the state last year, reducing the denominator further in the prisoner-to-population calculation. Mississippi is always right up there at the top of the pack, too. While obviously a lot of factors are at play, it's funny how it's the three states in the Fifth Circuit leading the incarceration brigade. But whatever the cause, the fact remains the southern gulf states are driving the incarceration train in America, which means we're driving the incarceration train for the whole world.

This is a 20th century phenomenon I think the US founding fathers would have abhorred. Two major categories of modern "crime," immigration and drug prohibition, weren't even against the law the nation's first 130 years or so. (Immigration was
first restricted in 1918, drug prohibition rose up in the '20s). Today, immigration cases make up the largest portion of federal prosecutors' workload, followed by prosecuting the drug war. In the states, drug prosecutions still lead the way. Those aren't the only sources, though of what's been referred to on the right as "overcriminalization." In Texas, nearly 2,000 separate acts have been declared felonies by the Legislature - when God laid down the law in Exodus, by contrast, He could only come up with ten.

These numbers are an embarrassment, a stain on the national character. How can a republic founded to establish freedom from tyranny lock up more of its people than any other? Somewhere along the way, we must have lost our path.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Even though Texas has the highest prison rate the crime rate is not going down as one would expect? Gee whiz am I surprised! Did anyone ever tell the brainiacs who run the state of Texas that once a person has a criminal record, their earning power is removed permanently for the rest of their lives, making them feel hopeless and more probable to break the law to obtain money?

What more can one expect from the ONLY state in the union that has ever been whipped? The Union whipped them in the civil war and the Mexicans whipped them at the Alamo. They can't do anything right. That's why they send such dummies to the nation's capital. People this dumb and mean should not be allowed to hold office ever anywhere.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, there was the entire rest of the Confederacy that was "whipped." And of course Texas WON the revolution with Mexico. But I agree Texas' criminal justice system in MANY ways generates more crime through unintended consequences, and the lack of earning power of ex-felons is one of the big ones.

Also, perhaps it's worth mentioning that the rest of the country elected the same "dummy" we did (Bush) so I'm not sure Texas is uniquely to blame on that score. But as I wrote, it's sure obvious we're "driving the train" on overincarceration. Best,

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. For Breakfast,
Thanks for the update. I grew up in Texas, and although I avoided any serious incarceration, my interactions with the police, particulary the Highway Patrol, were enough to make me fear and distrust policemen ever since. And that is a shame.
I think the cops down there just enjoy ruining people's lives. All the fake cowboy, redneck crap is the proud culture core. I could never live there again. Especially with all those damn criminals running around (in uniform).