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Ethan Nadelmann Headshot

We're (Still) #1! America's Gulag Just Keeps Growing

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There are now 2.24 million people behind bars in the United States. According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, released today, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails jumped by more than 60,000 in the year ending June 30, 2006. That jump represents the largest increase since 2000.

The U.S. continues to rank first among all nations in both total prison/jail population and per capita incarceration rates -- with about 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. The United States has held first place for years, followed by China at 1.5 million and Russia at 885,670, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College in London.

America's prison population explosion is fed in part by the failed drug war policies of the past 30-plus years. Back in 1980, around 50,000 people were incarcerated for drug law violations. The total is now roughly 500,000. And this number does not even include hundreds of thousands of parolees and probationers who are incarcerated for technical violations such as a drug relapse, nor does it include non-drug offenses committed under the influence of drugs, or to support a drug habit, or crimes of violence committed by drug sellers.

Two powerful forces are at play today. On the one hand, public opinion strongly supports alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent and especially low-level drug law violators -- and state legislatures around the country are beginning to follow suit. On the other hand, the prison-industrial complex has become a powerful force in American society, able to make the most of the political inertia that sustains knee-jerk, lock-'em-up policies.

Voters should be outraged that their tax money continues to be wasted on failed drug war policies. It's time for a change.

Despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent and millions of Americans incarcerated, illegal drugs remain cheap, potent and widely available in every community; and the harms associated with them -- addiction, overdose, and the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis -- continue to mount. Meanwhile, the war on drugs has created new problems of its own, including rampant racial disparities in the criminal justice system, broken families, increased poverty, unchecked federal power, and eroded civil liberties. Our elected officials need new metrics to determine whether progress is being made.

It's time for a new bottom line for U.S. drug policy -- one that focuses on reducing the cumulative death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug misuse and drug prohibition. A good start would be enacting short- and long-term national goals for reducing the problems associated with both drugs and the war on drugs. Such goals should include reducing social problems like drug addiction, overdose deaths, the spread of HIV/AIDS from injection drug use, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and the enormous number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. Federal drug agencies should be judged -- and funded -- according to their ability to meet these goals.

To find out more, visit the Drug Policy Alliance online at www.drugpolicy.org.

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