Like a lot of folks, I am staggered by the fact that more than 1 in 100 Americans are incarcerated, including approx. 1 in 9 young black men.  I don't have the evidence at my fingertips, but my gut instinct, like many libertarians, is to blame the war on drugs for much of the prison population.  I would have liked to have seen more detail in the PEW Report on how the population breaks down -- ie for what crimes and sentence lengths -- but no such information is available. 

I will say that the PEW report spends way too much time on the utilitarian argument about the costs in public dollars to actually incarcerate these folks.  My sense is that Americans almost never complain about the budgetary costs of incarceration.  They tend to be more than happy, as a group, to pay whatever it takes to keep felons locked away for long periods of time.   I think a much stronger argument is the individual rights complaint that so many people are locked up for what is basically consensual activity.


  1. ElamBend:

    I don't like the drug war either, particularly the mandatory sentences, or locking away non-violent offenders (and all bad police actions that have come in its name).
    That being said, take a look at the chart that goes with this post:

  2. Tom Kelly:

    The biggest loss is the productivity of the incarcerated. Youthful drug offenders end up in prison/criminal school at just the time they would be in entry level jobs learning the ways of work.

    Legalize drugs now- drugs are bad, criminalization is worse.

  3. Matt:

    "My sense is that Americans almost never complain about the budgetary costs of incarceration. They tend to be more than happy, as a group, to pay whatever it takes to keep felons locked away for long periods of time."

    Billy Beck quoted Mencken on that exact tendency not too long ago:

    "What the common man longs for in this world, before and above all his other longings, is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace: the peace of a trusty in a well-managed penitentiary. He is willing to sacrifice everything else to it. He puts it above his dignity and he puts it above his pride. Above all, he puts it above his liberty."

    The rest of Billy's notes are here:

  4. Anonymous:

    Watching the remarkable "Celebrity Rehab", they make the point that rehab is much more likely to be successful if there is a threat of jail motivating the user's reform efforts.

    Taking away the putative aspect of the War on Drugs would render the treatment portion largely ineffective.

  5. Scott:

    Coyote, if drugs were to be legalized, would there still be restrictions on drug use - such as minimum age, maximum dosage, banned varieties? Otherwise, how can we avoid serious addiction problems (cocaine is far more addictive and has worse withdrawal symtpoms than alcohol)?

    On that note, how can we avoid the emotional damage to the family if prostitution is legalized? Would background checks to turn away married men constitute invasion of privacy?

  6. Dr. Garth-James:

    Corrections 3.0: Innovations in Prisoner Work and Recidivism
    Satisfied with mediocrity, policy makers and professionals in corrections continue to “just warehouse” prisoners at costs too high to pay. In the view of one author, the incarceration of “blacks” and “brown” lawbreakers at higher rates compare to “whites” remains a problem and is costly (see D. Roberts, The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration of African American Communities, Standford Law Review, 2004). Marc Mauer’s research at The Sentencing Project, a think tank in Washington, DC, presents a compelling case for disporportionate confinement of African Americans; and, we as a human race must accept some responsibility. When is the criminals debt paid to society? Is imprisonment (or death) the only acceptable way to repay the debt? Is retribution in the long-term acceptable and sensible as the only route to justice? Gendreau (2000), and the “what works” experts argue that a “panaceaphilia” of “quick fix” solutions is a longstanding problem in corrections. After spending billions, even trillions, on incarceration (management and construction) and “warehousing,” a new vision is required. Modern corrections must become immune to the “fartcatcher syndrone” and become optimistic about the benefits of evidence-based research and knowledge of what works to reduce recidivism and improve ex-offender reentry into society (see Gendreau, 1996; 2000).

    What Works?

    When will policy makers consider as a priority the prisoner’s return to society and readiness for a successful reentry? The production of goods and services has moved beyond the US borders. Workers must update their employability skills to remain competive in the labor market. The traditional model of work has changed since the 1940s so that the US business can be competitive in the global flat (or 3.0) world. The Urban Institute reports that a million incarcerated males costs about X to GDP; and, Petersilia (2004), What Works in Prisoner Reentry?acknowledges that releasing thousands of prisoners per year is not new, but supervision services are “strecthed beyond limits,” having an adverse impact on ex-offender postrelease success. Garth-Lewis (1993), research found work, especially marketable job skills training, invaluable and with vocational rehabilitation and education, provide a framework to improve inmate “work effort,” self-esteem and can reduce recidivism and improve reentry (Garner, 1985; Cogburn, 1988; Hall, 1990). This paper provides a discussion of innovations in prisoner work; highlights characteristics of Joint Ventures; proposes a Joint Venture Accountability Model as a framework to improve ex-offender reentry and reduce recidivism.