Some figures recently published in the “Washington Post” illustrate the problem.
- The U.S. prison population is now more than 2.4 million.
- That number has more than quadrupled since 1980.
- That means more than one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.
- About 14 percent of the prison population is in federal prison
- The single largest driver in the increase in the federal prison population since 1998 is longer sentences for drug offenders.
- The average inmate in minimum-security federal prison costs $21,000 each year. The average inmate in maximum-security federal prisons costs $33,000 each year. I believe the average cost per prisoner in most European countries would be much higher.
- Federal prison costs are expected to rise to 30 percent of the US Department of Justice’s budget by 2020.
- The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent is in for homicide.
- The most serious charge against 20 percent of state-prison inmates is a drug offense though it’s still larger than any other single category of offense in state prisons.
One of the reasons for the large prison population in the United States is the so called “war “on drugs, a war that has been going on since the 1970, without victory being in sight, or ever expected.
Another is the prevalence of mandatory minimum sentences.
I would be strongly opposed to mandatory sentences, as a general principle, because every offender, and every offence, is different.
I do not believe that a long sentence really relieves the suffering of victims, although it is routine for the media to ask victims and their families, on the steps of the court, after the sentence has been passed, whether they are “satisfied” with the sentence.
This cultivates the false notion that sentences are about a form of vengeance, when, to my mind, the purpose of a prison sentence is to prevent/deter future offences by this particular offender or by another.