12/17/2012 12:30 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Prison Population Erupts, Bankers Remain Safe From Law's Reach

For anyone who's been living under a rock for three decades, here's something you may have missed: America's prison population has erupted over the last 30 years.

This fact is elucidated by a New York Times article this week which drives home several points about the country's population behind bars, as nicely summed up by Think Progress. Some of the stats to ponder include:

Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., 500,000 are locked up for drug offenses -- ten times more than there were in 1980. Researchers have found that these lock-ups have no concurrent effect on the illicit drug supply, as demand remains the same and replacement dealers are easy to come by.

More than half of the incarcerated are locked up for nonviolent offenses.

Adjusted for inflation, state spending on corrections has more than tripled over the last 30 years, making it the fastest-growing budgetary item after Medicaid.

In the U.S. today, about 1 in 40 children, and 1 in 15 black children, have at least one parent in prison.

Conservative social scientists who were once some of the primary proponents of tough criminal policies are now recommending diverting drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs and reducing the prison population by at least one-third.

Clearly, lots of Americans are locked up. But, as The Huffington Post's Mark Gongloff points out, there is one particular group of individuals who it appears are too important to throw behind bars, no matter how egregious their crimes.

The British banking conglomerate HSBC was fined $1.2 billion (about two months of profits) for laundering billions of dollars on behalf of Mexican drug lords, the Iranian government and terrorist-linked groups.

The government's reason for not bringing criminal charges against HSBC, despite evidence that high-ranking officials were aware of the criminal activity, was that the bank is too big to jail.

From the New York Times' story on the settlement:

A money-laundering indictment, or a guilty plea over such charges, would essentially be a death sentence for the bank. Such actions could cut off the bank from certain investors like pension funds and ultimately cost it its charter to operate in the United States, officials said.

That, writes Gongloff, "is at least three very specific flavors of bullshit."

Even if bringing criminal charges against the bank would pose a threat to its stability, an assertion Gongloff's sources dispute, the Obama administration's refusal to hold a large financial institution accountable for criminal activity is an explicit admission that elite, powerful bankers will not and should not be put behind bars, according to the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald:

The U.S. government is expressly saying that banking giants reside outside of -- above -- the rule of law, that they will not be punished when they get caught red-handed committing criminal offenses for which ordinary people are imprisoned for decades. Aside from the grotesque injustice, the signal it sends is as clear as it is destructive: you are free to commit whatever crimes you want without fear of prosecution.

As Greenwald points out, the HSBC settlement was announced the same day that the Times' told the story of Stephanie George, a mother spending a life sentence behind bars for her second drug conviction. One that, even the judge who sentenced her said was unfair. Because of mandatory sentencing guidelines, he had no choice.

"Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing," Judge Roger Vinson told George when she was sentenced 15 years ago. "Your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence."

George told the Times her mother was shocked when she heard her daughter's punishment.

"I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why," George told the paper. "Sometimes I still can't believe myself it could happen in America."