10/30/2012 01:14 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2012

On One Issue, Two Empty Chairs

With the presidential debates now over and little more than a week to go before the election, it's clear that the vigorous back-and-forth between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will leave out one of the great issues of our time: mass incarceration.

This issue doesn't get much national press. Ask rank-and-file progressives about it and they're likely to nod gravely, knowing there must be something wrong with our criminal justice system but unsure exactly what -- or why they should care. This year's general election provided an opportunity to air out the issue and it didn't happen.

The first thing Americans should know about mass incarceration is that it exists. As the Beyond Bars campaign points out nonstop, the United States has more people incarcerated than any country on earth, both per capita and in absolute terms. Our total of 2.3 million prisoners exceeds second-place China, which has 1.7 million. Our rate of 743 prisoners per 100,000 residents tops second-place Rwanda (595) and third-place Russia (568).

It didn't used to be this way. The U.S. incarceration rate has quintupled in the past four decades. So why do we imprison so many people?

Is it to protect the population from violence? No. Over half of the people incarcerated went in for nonviolent offenses. Many are locked up because of the war on drugs, others for property crimes (many of which are drug-related anyway).

Is it to teach criminals a lesson and deter future crime? Nope: About two-thirds of those who leave prison get nabbed again for something serious within three years. According to a Harvard study, our soaring incarceration rates have had only a small effect on crime rates.

Is it for the justice of payback? Mass incarceration could hardly be described as just. It has left some 2.7 million children without a parent and ensured that people who commit even low-level crimes are burdened forever with problems getting a job. People of color, especially African-Americans, have suffered the most, gettinglocked up at rates far outpacing the number of crimes they commit.

This system doesn't come cheap, either. Taxpayers are on the hook for about $74 billion a year for the prison system. That number goes up to $288 billion once we count cops and courts.

So why do we have mass incarceration? The answer comes down to politics and profit. Politicians have tapped into Americans' fears with "tough on crime" rhetoric that ignores the complexities of public safety and inevitably has a racial tinge. Meanwhile, big prison spending has numerous special interest defenders -- from private prisons that profit from excessive sentencing to corporations that sell products to public prisons to the police departmentsthat get federal money to round up drug users and low-level dealers.

Politicos like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama may think they have nothing to gain from broaching this subject. But with a little vision, they might gain quite a bit. After all, voices for change are coming from both political directions. On the conservative side, figures such as Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich are finally speaking out for a more cost-effective approach to criminal justice. On the progressive side, groups have long been calling for more fairness. And today, state budgets have become so tight that politicians who once saw only an upside to macho posturing are having to start thinking about ways to cut spending sensibly. Curbing mass incarceration might be one of the only issues on which there could be bipartisan cooperation.

In this election season, that case hasn't been made. But the next president, whoever he is, should consider calling for a rethink of America's incarceration policies. The opportunity is there for politicians willing to take it.

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