08/18/2010 03:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Prison Industrial Complex

Two articles recently published in The Economist discuss the absurdity of our laws and punishment policies in the United States. These absurdities are both patent from the "crime" -- for example, they discuss a case from ten years ago where four Americans were charged, and three ultimately convicted for importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, in violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras no longer enforces, which then falls under a law which requires us not to violate foreign hunting or fishing rules. The three who got convicted got eight years apiece and two of them are still in jail. No kidding.

It's no secret that we incarcerate a higher per capita number of people than any other first world nation. The numbers are staggering. Almost ten percent of our population is locked up, and the percentage is worse among young Black men. Does this accomplish anything? In other words, does locking up a drug dealer stop drug dealing? The answer is, and has been for decades, a resounding no. Please be clear -- I am not suggesting that there aren't some violent offenders who should be incarcerated -- I am speaking about the "war on drugs" that we have been waging unsuccessfully for decades, of incarcerating for non-violent offenses.

There is no question that we can't afford this any more -- it is injurious to our communities, to the long-term prospects of those we incarcerate who lose the ability to get work, and in many states to vote -- it doesn't make us safer -- in fact, studies in other countries and states, show that less incarceration leads to less crime. People with drug problems don't get better in prison, they get better in treatment. If we spent a quarter of what we spend on crime, on job creation instead, we would see less crime. We spend between $25,000 and $50,000 per prisoner a year to lock each person up, when less than a quarter of those we imprison have done anything violent. According to The Economist, there are 2.3 million incarcerated in the United States, and with their lower figure of $25,000 per inmate, that is over 57.5 billion dollars a year. Think what we could do with three-quarters of that money to improve our country.

But I fear there are those who do not want less crime. There is a profit to be made by the privatized prison system. Did you know that the largest Political Action Committee in the State of California is that of corrections officials who lobby for ever stiffer sentences -- in other words, job security -- in a state that is closing schools? If we stopped using incarceration as a one-size-fits-all "solution" it is true that there would be jobs in corrections, police, probation, and parole that would be lost. But we could put these folks to work doing other things, really we could (I remember once being asked why I support abolishing the death penalty since what I do is work on defending death cases -- in other words, why would I work to get rid of my job. Here is the answer. If there is no more death penalty, I will find other ways to help people).

Maybe we could start building something in the United States again -- maybe we could build factories instead of prisons. We could fix our bridges, add more trains, clean up our parks and goodness knows the Gulf of Mexico. We could spend the money to treat the illness of addiction, or on job training, for parenting classes, and on adult high school programs. (Yes, decriminalizing most drugs would be a good idea from an international point of view as it is our consumption of illegal drugs that is funding much of terrorism -- but that's a discussion for another day.)

I know it is hard not to sound tough. It is easy to make fun of a politician or other policy-maker who suggests being smart about crime, using prevention tools, and spending our resources on rehabilitation. They might just end up with a right handed finger pointing at him or her and a clench-lipped "Liberal!" being hurled in their direction. But you see, that is all right. Preventing crime, treating addiction, attendaning to mental illnesses, fixing our infrastructure, putting millions to work -- if that is bad, well, I just don't know what is good.

Andrea D. Lyon is the author of Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer. For more information please visit

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