Monday, January 27, 2014

Discrimination, Incarceration, and Political Stagnation

In his New York Times blog this week, Nicholas Kristof finds evidence of a deepening societal rift revealed in a story of law enforcement run amok.  The columnist reminds us that bank executives (some of whom are my former employers) have harmed millions through shady and deceptive business practices, without spending a single hour in prison. Meanwhile, single moms, teens, and others who have used marijuana have hurt no-one, yet many—usually the poor—will sacrifice years of their lives incarcerated alongside murderers and rapists.

There are some encouraging signs. In reference to the tide of states legalizing marijuana, President Obama recently said, "[I]t's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

It's a relief to finally hear any American politician—much less the President—finally acknowledge the obvious: that the unnecessary, unjust, and arbitrary war on drugs has left our prisons overcrowded and our socially disadvantaged understandably resentful.

So far, little has changed. What's worse, arbitrary drug arrests are only a part of a larger and more ominous trend in American jurisprudence. Incarceration rates in the US are far higher than those of any other nation—including those that routinely imprison political activists or engage in other human rights abuses. Higher than Iran. Higher than China. Higher than Saudi Arabia.

It's not that we have more violent crime than those countries (although we certainly have more gun crimes). Indeed, as many as half of these inmates have been jailed for non-violent crimes, with over 3,000 non-violent offenders serving a life sentence.

Absurd and hypocritical drug laws aren't the only problem. Our overflowing prisons are fed by many streams, including lobbying by private-sector prison operators, overreach of the post-9/11 security establishment, and failure of the mental health system to identify and treat seriously ill individuals before they act out.

Kristof is right when he suggests that selective enforcement is "a matter of profound social inequality", but he is, tragically, just as correct when he points out that "inequality in America has other dimensions" as well. Social mobility is stagnant, wealth inequality has reached record levels, and voting rights are now routinely abrogated through gerrymandering and voter ID legislation. Taken together, it's clear that American democracy faces its gravest threat since the Civil War.

Our way of life is novel; a historical aberration. If we abuse or neglect it, democracy, like every form of government before it, will simply disappear, a glimpse of sunlight fondly recalled in the long, dark night that is human history.


  1. You should definitely expand on the issue of Gerrymandering and other problems with the voting system, but it's a good thing you mentioned the effect of private prisons. The data indicate that private-prisons, by lobbying for harsher and more pervasive sentencing, have dramatically increased incarceration rates, and there have even been instances in which judges have taken bribes from private prisons to convict more people.

    In California, though, the abnormally high prison population is also affected by the initiative process. Voters will usually pass harsher sentencing laws, regardless of the fact that they likely don't affect crime rates and regardless of the fact that we already have far too many prisoners. The legislature, whose job it is to budget around these laws, would probably like to repeal or weaken some of these initiatives, but uniquely among the states, it can't.