Reforming America’s Prison System: The Time Has Come

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) in his recent article calling for a major reform of America’s prisons in Parade Magazine brought some very disturbing, eye opening, statistics about America’s prison system to light. In summary this is some of what he found:

-Since 1984, America’s prison population has quadrupled from 580,000 to 2.3 million

-Though the U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s reported prisoners

-Local, state, and federal spending on corrections costs the U.S. taxpayer about $68 billion annually* (California spent nearly $10 million on corrections last year by itself!)

-16% (350,000) adults in prison or jail are mentally ill

-3/4 of drug offenders in state prisons are non-violent offenders or in prison solely for drug offenses

-47.5% of all drug arrests in the U.S. were fore marijuana offenses

-Despite insignificant statistical differences regarding drug use among races, Blacks (accounting for 12% of the U.S. population) account for 37% of all drug arrests, 59% of which are convicted and account for 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison

Perhaps for the “tough on crime” types, this is all good news but for anyone else who thinks critically of these statistics, I would expect that most would be concerned if not horrified. In response to these statistics, Sen. Webb makes the following observation:

“With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different–and vastly counterproductive.”

For regular consumers of the evening news, it may seem that the first possibility could be true. Without fail, the evening news reports stories of violence, vandalism, kidnapping, rape, child molestation, and murder both locally and nationally. There is also no shortage of true crime programs** detailing the most heinous crimes one could imagine being committed against other human beings; it’s all very disturbing. Our jails and prisons surely must be overflowing from these creeps!

One would think that roving bands of murderous thugs are on every street in America, yet we each almost always make it to and from work, to and from running errands and eating out unmolested. Our odds of being killed in an auto accident*** are many times greater than being victim to this roving band of murderous thugs. How can this be? In most auto accidents, the victim may try to find an accident attorney to seek legal advice or take legal action.

While we should each be vigilant and aware of our surroundings and always use common sense, the perception that our prisoners are overflowing with mostly violent criminals just isn’t true. Figure 1 shows the U.S. prison population under the purview of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The BOP population accounts for 202,493 of America’s 2.3 million prisoners.

Figure 1

Source: Bureau of Prisons as of February 2009

Source: Bureau of Prisons as of February 2009

As is evident from Figure 1, our prisons are mostly housing drug offenders; the most violent criminals “homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping” + “sex crimes” (assuming every “sex crime” is a violent act which is not a safe assumption) accounts for only 6.4% of the BOP’s population. If we want to assume that every weapons, explosives, and arson inmate is a violent offender (again, not at all a safe assumption) with 15% and throw in national security offenses at .1%****, the maximum violent criminal population stands at roughly 21.5% (excluding other violent offenders who may be hidden in the remaining categories). Many in these kinds of situations would probably benefit from talking to your best lawyer to understand legal options to a greater degree.

Figure 2 is based on the same data; the only difference is I have taken out 3/4 of the drug offenders (based on Sen. Webb’s finding that 3/4 of all drug offenders are non-violent offenders). Figure 2 shows what the prison population might look like if all 50 governors pardoned/commuted sentences for all non-violent state drug offenders and if President Obama did the same at the federal level.

Figure 2



Figure 3 represents a “libertarian fantasy” where all drugs are legalized and therefore; no crime associated with the non-existent war on (some) drugs. The remaining categories have not been altered for simplicity.

Figure 3



If the BOP statistics are an accurate sampling of the entire U.S. prison population, this would mean that with the act of releasing only non-violent drug offenders would reduce the overall population by 30.8% or roughly 713,000 (as shown in Figure 2). This would certainly go a long way toward reforming the prison system but would only be a start. To better allocate prison resources and to better answer the questions Sen. Webb wants answered, a philosophical question must be answered: Who do we want to lock up and for what purpose?

As someone who is a strong advocate of the rights of life, liberty, and property, it’s my belief that the only individuals who should ever see the inside of a jail or prison cell are those who have trampled on any of these rights of another individual. The only legitimate purpose of the government is to help individuals defend these rights, therefore; if an individual engages in an activity in which s/he does not threaten the rights of another individual then no crime has taken place.

In the real world we also have to realize that limited resources require prioritizing which criminals should be locked up and which should be dealt with differently. I doubt that many would say that the most violent of criminals should be free to re-offend. There really isn’t any punishment strong enough for someone who has intentionally taken the life of an innocent person; life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is as close to justice as the victim and offender can get.

We should also consider that putting an individual in prison should not only be considered punishment but more importantly a way of separating him or her from others s/he may wish to harm.

With this philosophical approach that only individuals who violate the rights of others should be in prison, does this mean that each and every petty criminal should be locked up?

In a word, the answer is no. In response to the open thread question I posed to readers, several made a very interesting suggestion: restitution.

Far too often we hear that criminals have some sort of “debt to society” which they must pay. I would argue that when an individual steals from someone else, it’s the person who was stolen from who the thief owes a debt, not “society.” With crimes with actual victims, why not force the offending party to repay the victim?

This approach could be used from the lowest level petty criminal to the Bernie Madoffs of the world. Which would do more to repay the debts of Madoff’s victims, a lengthy prison sentence or a liquidation of all of his assets seized by the government and given back to those he stole from?

Of course, not every criminal is as successful at screwing people over as Madoff. How can a victim be made whole if the individual who victimized him or her has no assets to seize and no wages to garnish? In such cases, perhaps imprisonment would be appropriate. Inmates in this category could work for a wage while in prison and all earnings would be paid directly to the victim. Once this individual has paid his/her debt to the victim, s/he would be released. If Sen. Webb’s purpose is to establish a committee is to look for innovative solutions in reforming America’s prison system, restitution is one idea which deserves further study.

Reforming the prison system will be impossible without returning to a philosophy which puts the rights of the individual first. As long as individuals are being put in prison for personal choices which do not victimize others, the prison population will only grow larger. In the meantime with the limited prison resources available, law makers need to set priorities and need to allow judges to judge particular circumstances of a case. This necessarily means scrapping once and for all the mandatory minimum sentencing experiment which has greatly contributed to the U.S. becoming the world’s largest jailer.

The War on (Some) Drugs & The Prison Industrial Complex in Perspective
Pew Report: 1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars in 2008

*Does anyone else remember when this was considered a large sum of money?

**Which I confess, I watch these shows fairly frequently. Forensic Files and The First 48 are among my favorites.

***Think about it: why is it that not every fatal auto accident makes the news? Could it be because they are so common? In general what makes something newsworthy is the fact that the “something” in question is unusual.

****Not visible on graphs

  • Stephen Gordon

    Great job on this.

    The one thing that irks me is that people (media, govt officials, etc) are much more interested in “nonviolent” crimes than “victimless” crimes.

    One can commit all sorts of harm to others with a nonviolent crime. If we could get people to use the term “victimless crime” more often, it would probably lead to quicker change.

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  • dave

    We already have civil and criminal courts.

    Secondly, what do we do with all those unemployed lawyers, court support staff, assistant district attorneys, narcotics divisions, prison maintenance staff, and lobbyists?

    We’ll end up inventing new crimes.

  • John J. Pecchio

    Important Message That Needs Your Attention
    This letter will inform the mind and startle the soul of how our prisons have become contaminated with flaws imbedded with unthinking unknowing or corrupted officials and political Bureaucrats.

    Federal and State Prisons are overcrowded and costly to taxpayers. In California for example, they have an average of 33 prisons that are filled with about 153,000 inmates living off the taxpayers. Lawmakers and their legal system have pressed the courts for decades to put these criminals behind bars at taxpayers’ expense. Now that the California prisons are overcrowding and becoming too much to support, the legal system and California government officials are considering a new law that will reduce the prison population in three-years to a staggering 55,000 prisoners.

    We now have a prison recidivism rate of seventy-to-ninety-percent in one to three-years. That means those ninety-eight thousand criminals will walk out of prisons free to commit more crimes putting law-enforcement officers in danger again, trying to re-arrest the same criminals and put them through their penal system at taxpayers’ expense. Gang wars are taking over our society like butter melting over a hot stove. Our prisons are infested with gangs that come from ghettos of our society. Prisons Officials and Lawmakers cannot stop these gangs from continuing their crimes in prisons.

    How can anyone in the Judicial System favor releasing so many repeat felons knowing that the criminal mind never sleeps in prisons? Prison officials know that repeat felons get more violent and evil minded from dealing with so much corruption in our prison systems that’s disaster-prone and can not be repaired.

    Preparing prisoners to reform in today’s prisons without re-socializing them is hypocritical and life-threatening. But it keeps the taxpayer’s money flowing into the system and this does not seem to bother the fathers of our justice system and lawmakers, who keep pushing for more laws to protect criminal rights.

    In Mexico, the crime rates are high and that breeds a lot of corruption in their society and in law-enforcement officials. They now have the highest kidnapping rate in the world. When these Mexicans and millions of other illegal immigrants keep pouring over the boarders in our county crime rates keep increasing. Phoenix Arizona now has the second highest kidnapping rate in the world.

    The federal panel of justice decision makers within our government is trying to sell the American taxpayers a stimulus package that will get the economy going again. I see that the Governors of each state are helping to reduce the deficit in this country by closing prisons and trying to reduce prison populations and prison staff.

    You do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that our society is filled with more violence than in the history of the United States. So how can prison officials that have turned into political followers be allowed to make decisions to keep society and prisons safe?

    Here is how I see the past and future of prisons. As a society we cannot afford to release dangerous prisoners frivolously. Our criminal justice system was developed by lawmakers to pass laws to put these criminals behind bars. The recidivism rate is approximately seventy-percent in one to three-years. Sex offenders, have a recidivism rate that’s pushing ninety-percent in one to three-years.

    Prison officials and lawmakers are now releasing criminals from prison that are not fully rehabilitated or disciplined. That’s why repeat felons along with illegal immigrants commit most of the crimes in the United States.

    I worked in an “All Male Maximum-Security Prison” for almost three decades and I say with experience and sound mind that behind those prison walls is a failing prison system that’s contaminated with flaws and embedded with unthinking, unknowing, or corrupt officials and political bureaucrats.

    My books “Hell Behind Prison Walls” and “The Devil’s Den Of Prison And Justice” are true compelling and gripping stories taken from my personal thoughts and prison experiences that will inform the mind and startle the soul.

    Our prisons are filled with approximately eighty-percent of thugs and gangsters that are career criminals hooking up with old gang members from the streets of our society and without remorse continue their crime sprees in prisons.

    Now that correctional officers have been downgraded from being the backbone of the prison system to glorified babysitters, living in fear of violating criminal’s rights and the use of force when trying to protect them-selves is not what prisons were intended for.

    These violent criminals not only control our prison compounds, but have turned our correctional facilities and courtrooms into their personal playgrounds hiding behind their civil rights, while they continue to violate the civil rights of others. This is so appalling and degrading to taxpayers’ that pay over “one-hundred-billion-dollars” a year to keep the ”Criminal Justice System” going to fight crimes in this country…

    “A Nightmare from Hell” is how I describe working in one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, The Elmira Correctional Facility.

    I invite you to review my website that will introduce my books, which has generated great interest in readers around the country and are regional best-sellers.

    I survived working in this prison system in New York State as a vocational instructor, dealing with murderers, rapist, and pedophiles, drug pushers, mentally disturbed and non-violent inmates of all ages.
    Prison staff lives in constant fear of moving daily between freedom and captivity, while walking a delicate line between administrative politics and the threat of inmate violence.

    I offer unique insight into the inner-workings of “America’s prisons”. In addition, I give readers a definitive look into the causes behind their major problems, which were shockingly created by lawmakers and prison officials.
    You can now read how federal and state prisons have deteriorated to their worst condition in the history of these institutions. They have changed from being run with dignity and strong security into a hellish nightmare where corruption is the norm.

    With the loss of positive leadership in our prisons came the increase of prisoner’s power, primarily caused by their ability to hide behind highly-defended “Civil Rights”, which has now taken precedence above all else. These rights allowed them to live without fear of strong retribution for their actions, thereby leading to a breakdown in inmate behavior and resulting in riots, fights, and physical and verbal abuse of prison workers.

    I have personally suffered the negative effects of this volatile environment when I was brutally attacked by a prisoner who was serving two life sentences for multiple murders. This attack, which I describe in devastating detail, was induced by the ongoing failing prison systems along with the lack of prisoner and administrative discipline.

    The truth can be found from letters and personal remarks I received from many readers, which can be reviewed on my website guest-book. You can also see a video commercial and read along with newspaper interviews.

    For Information On (Prison Presentation) (Book Signings) and (Interviews) visit my Website – And join in on my
    Sincerely – John J. Pecchio

  • Stephen Littau


    Secondly, what do we do with all those unemployed lawyers, court support staff, assistant district attorneys, narcotics divisions, prison maintenance staff, and lobbyists?

    Are you suggesting that we should continue this insanity to keep the beneficiaries of the prison industrial complex employed?

  • oilnwater

    “We already have civil and criminal courts.

    Secondly, what do we do with all those unemployed lawyers, court support staff, assistant district attorneys, narcotics divisions, prison maintenance staff, and lobbyists?

    We’ll end up inventing new crimes.”

    doug mataconis will finally get a real job.

  • Akston

    With that much of the population behind bars, I guess it’s not surprising that the recession having an effect there too.

  • Stephen Littau

    Akston, that’s hilarious. Thanks for that!