Why is the land of the free the leading police state?
According to the Pew, a nonpartisan research center, one in every 100 Americans is behind bars in the largest per-capita prison population in the world. The U.S. population is less than five percent of the world’s total, but we incarcerate more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners.
How is this possible? How does a country founded on democracy, freedom, justice and equality hold two million of the nine million total prisoners in the world? Are there just more “evildoers,” to apply a Bushism, born in America, or has a structural system been created that uses incarceration as a remedy to social problems?
If I asked you to imagine the U.S. as a nation that abolished prisons and provided an alternative that decreased crime and increased safety you would probably call me an idealist.
Do prisons really ensure the safety of law-abiding citizens? While this is a popular claim, there is no statistical support. Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, said, “For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn’t been a clear and convincing return for public safety.”
States now spend about $23,876 annually on maintaining just one prisoner, while states spend only $8,701 a year on a K-12 student. Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, said investment in education not only improves graduation rates but reduces incarceration rates, increases economic competitiveness and lowers health-care cost. Countries that invest in education and achieve strong academic performances have the lowest prison populations. We need to invest in caring for our children more than caring for our criminals.
According to a recent joint study by Oxford and Cambridge University, there might be twice the number of prisoners suffering from mental illness and major depression than in all psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. combined. Many of these people fall below the poverty level and do not have access to proper treatment.
Putting millions in cages is a reactive approach that does nothing for public safety or economic development. As a country we must radically shift our focus from spending on prisons to spending on education and medical reform. To lessen this country’s dependence on prison, look not for one alternative but a collection of solutions that ensure all Americans are educated, healthy and free. Bobby Gomez is a senior in elementary education. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.