Excellent article by Christopher Shea who writes the ‘Critical Faculties’ column in this weekend’s Boston Globe, “Life Sentence”:

What if America launched a new New Deal and no one noticed? And what if, instead of lifting the unemployed out of poverty, this multibillion-dollar project steadily drove poor communities further and further out of the American mainstream?

That’s how America should think about its growing prison system, some leading social scientists are saying, in research that suggests prisons have a far deeper impact on the nation than simply punishing criminals.

Fueled by the war on drugs, "three-strike" laws, and mandatory minimum sentences, America’s prisons and jails now house some 2.2 million inmates – roughly seven times the figure of the early 1970s. And Americans are investing vast resources to keep the system running: The cost to maintain American correctional institutions is some $60 billion a year.

The article makes many good points.

One is the problem that most of the general public is completely unaware that America is the Land of Incarceration (5% of the world’s population, almost 25% of the world’s prisoners). Most folks that aren’t in the ‘criminal justice’ industry are shocked by those numbers.

Shea argues that the pendulum is perhaps swinging in the other direction. He points to Glenn Loury and Bruce Western’s upcoming testimony at next week’s congressional hearings. The Joint Economic Committee will focus at least in part on the economic costs of our current ‘lock the door, and throw away the key’ approach to punishing drug crimes.

Shea believes that prison reform will take off as books are being released and sociologists focus on the problem.

Speaking of pendulums, also see One-Way Street’s analysis of the article:

The incipient prison reform movement may have less to do with genuine concern for the unfortunate than a consequence of a long economic expansion finally running out of gas. Citing Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is irresistible in this context, and Foucault points out that prison reform is most likely to occur in affluent times, when criminality tends to turn toward crimes against property, causing in turn a broad harshening of penalties.

Rather than just simply throwing every crack head burglar in jail for the rest of his life, as we’re essentially doing now, reformers wanted not to soften the law but to lessen (or sometimes merely to hide) the arbitrariness of justice.

Foucault himself was a member of the Groupe d’information sur les Prisons (GIP), a prison reform group, but that didn’t prevent him from being suspicious of prison reform movements in general, which he regarded as agents in the redistribution of power.

On a personal note, I believe that in the centuries to come, societies will see the War on Drugs as a great moral failing on the part of the United States; that is, incarcerating drug addicts for substantial periods for doing what we know they do will be unthinkable. Don’t forget, at one point most folks didn’t question the morality of slavery.

But I have also argued in the past that drug war reformers will initially prevail, and in baby steps at that, by making cogent economic arguments. Give me fifteen minutes to have a serious back and forth conversation with anyone, anyone who is pro-Drug War, and I’ll have them at least halfway converted when they hear how much 25 to Life costs them, for non-violent drug users. The most hard headed will at least concede that the really high sentences shouldn’t be handed out for any marijuana offense, or for anyone that ‘only uses’ drugs. I think many of them think I am stretching the truth when I tell them the horror stories.

[Hat Tip: Oregon marijuana lawyer Lee Berger. Thanks for sending this article out on the NORML Legal Committee ListServ. Also see Pat Rogers.]