06/20/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

American Bicycle Thief Released After 3 1/2 Years: A Tale of Sick Justice

This year Chris Martinez, a laid-off construction worker, finished serving three and a half years in prison for wheeling a rusty bicycle with two flat tires and no chain out of someone else's garage in Manhattan Beach, California -- and then leaving it behind. His case never made the news, but I happened to know him.

It started out as a stupid prank, but a small-time offender arrested by police later in connection with an unrelated incident sought a better deal for himself by identifying Martinez as a bicycle thief. The prosecutor, seeing that Martinez had pleaded guilty to a similar theft a few years earlier, offered him a sentence of nine years and four months, "and the public defender said it was a good deal I should sign," Martinez recalled. He was 24 at the time. "At that point my maximum amount of time was 20 years."

A lawyer friend of the family took over and bargained the deal down to three and a half-years minimum. Martinez accepted. You might say he got lucky -- if you think doing three and a half years in prison for almost stealing a twenty-dollar bicycle is lucky. Did anyone viewing Vittoria De Sica's The Bicycle Thief imagine that the desperate father in his 1948 masterpiece about postwar Rome would end up serving such an irrational sentence? Probably not.

Martinez's sentence was no freakish accident but part of a deliberate policy pursued by a prison-industrial complex that profits from harsh justice, injustice, and sometimes no justice at all. It was nurtured by intellectual sloth, the war on drugs, and the same gratuitous fear and loathing that the late Hunter Thompson found dictating so many corners of society.

Starting around the time President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, a combination of economic, social, and political forces hijacked the criminal justice system, tossing punitive sentences around like Frisbees and creating a structure that works contrary to the mission of creating a safer, more humane society. It provides false solutions through political posturing and fear-mongering fed by a hungry 24-hour news cycle. At any given moment the U.S. incarcerates nearly 2.3 million people, a population about the size of Houston's. Most of them don't belong behind bars.

A healthy society will always struggle to achieve a balance between freedom and security, but since 9/11 America seems to have abandoned this struggle. As I researched a book on the U.S. justice system I found case after case like Martinez's, many of them far worse. Atiba Parker, for example, is serving 42 years in Mississippi for possession of 2.41 grams of crack and 1.5 grams of marijuana. These amounts are roughly the size of sugar packets. He'd been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, an illness characterized by hallucinations, extreme paranoia, mania and depression.

It's impossible to know how many such crushed souls languish within the impossible vastness of the U.S. Gulag. As a rule its functionaries don't advertise their atrocities. But Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of current and former members of the criminal justice system, notes that the Obama administration's execution of drug policy heavily favors punishment over treatment "even though [Obama] has said drug addiction should be handled as a health issue."

The Land of the Free not only holds more prisoners than any other country in the world, it has the highest per capita incarceration rate. Its prisoner ratio of 748 per 100,000 residents is nearly five times that of Spain, which has the highest ratio in Western Europe. With only five percent of the world's population, the U.S. holds 25 percent of its prisoners, exceeding the per capita levels even of dictatorships such as China and Iran. In fact, one of every hundred American adults is behind bars.

Obviously there are victims of vicious crimes whose circumstances cry out for justice and dangerous perpetrators who should be locked away for the good of society, but the United States imposes lengthy sentences on drug users who can't afford treatment, on low-grade shoplifters, and the mentally ill. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association points out that jails and prisons are the nation's de facto primary mental health care facilities.

Jurists elsewhere are baffled by America's curious infatuation with keeping so many nonthreatening people behind bars and in such awful conditions. Our system not only imprisons offenders who would not go to jail in other countries; it gives them long sentences. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy figures American sentences are eight times longer than those meted out in European courts.

Defenders of the system claim it jails so many people because it does its job more effectively. But police states make the same claim.

This essay was excerpted from Ivan G. Goldman's Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag, to be published in June 2013 by Potomac Books. Goldman, a former Washington Post staff writer, is a New York Times best-selling author of six books.