Skip to main content

When will the U.S. stop mass incarceration?

By Lisa Bloom, Special to CNN
July 3, 2012 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
A penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
A penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled since 1980
  • Lisa Bloom: We need to stop warehousing our own people, especially nonviolent offenders
  • She says spending on prisons has risen six times faster than spending on higher education
  • Bloom: Why isn't this front and center issue in the presidential campaign?

Editor's note: Lisa Bloom is an attorney, legal analyst for Avvo.com and author of "Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture." Follow her on Twitter: @LisaBloom

(CNN) -- The United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, including China which has four times our population, or in human history. And now, a new Pew report announces that we are keeping even nonviolent inmates behind bars for increasingly longer terms.

This comes at a time when soaring costs of prisons are wreaking havoc on federal, state and local budgets, as schools, libraries, parks and social programs are slashed. When I graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1983, my state spent more on higher education than prisons, a lot more. That equation is now reversed. Money that could have gone into reducing skyrocketing tuition and cuts to education has instead gone to prisons and inmates.

Over the past 23 years, California constructed roughly one new prison per year, at a cost of $100 million each, while it built only one new public college during the same period. Nationwide, spending on prisons has risen six times faster than spending on higher education.

Lisa Bloom
Lisa Bloom

As I protest education cuts, I'm so often told, "We just don't have the money." It's a lie. We do have the money. We just choose to spend it on prisons.

Why is this not a front and center issue in the presidential campaign?

Largely casualties of our misguided "war on drugs," and vigorously promoted at the federal level by the "drug czar" and a $15 billion annual budget, the number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled since 1980.

More than two million of our people are now locked up, with another nearly five million under an increasingly restrictive system of correctional control in lieu of or after incarceration. Criminalizing human behavior like never before, our judges are required by law to mete out increasingly punitive, long sentences, even for children. Even after inmates are released, they remain under the heavy-handed and pricey control of the criminal justice system for years or for life, often legally barred from voting, receiving public housing, food stamps or student loans.

Forced to "check the box" on job applications that they are convicted criminals, even those who have had simple convictions like marijuana possession are often legally discriminated against by employers.

An unemployed young man recently wrote to me about being shut out of his dream job, nursing, because of a decade-old marijuana offense. In fact, no one at all will hire him. As he languishes on a friend's couch, he is hopeless, depressed and suicidal.

In the United States, one man out of eighteen is incarcerated or on probation or parole, and more are locked up every day. We are the last developed country on the planet to lock up juveniles, overwhelmingly boys, for life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were minors. (Though the Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors in June, judges may still impose the sentence as a discretionary matter.)

Here's one stark way to understand our new normal of mass incarceration: If we wanted to return to 1970s level of incarceration, we'd have to release four out of five people behind bars today.

Nonviolent offenders are 60% of our prison population. Releasing half of them would free up nearly $17 billion per year for schools or other worthy programs, with no appreciable effect on the crime rate. In fact, many studies conclude that mass incarceration is crimogenic, i.e., locking up people for minor offenses increases crime because they become hardened behind bars. Since few prisons offer therapy or vocational programs and children left behind in fatherless homes are more likely to grow up to become offenders themselves, the problem just gets worse.

But we cannot keep going down the road of locking up more people for longer amounts of time. According to Pew, prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36% longer, than offenders released in 1990. Annually we now spend $68 billion and growing on local, state and federal corrections.

The American public strongly supports reducing time served for nonviolent offenders. But candidates appear afraid to touch this touchy third rail issue, for fear they appear less than "tough on crime."

Why does the right not consider our multibillion-dollar prison system to be the type of bloated government program ripe for cost-cutting?

Why is the left so rarely concerned about the warehoused young lives and the destruction of inner city families from our culture of mass incarceration?

Why do both sides accept the framing of this question, so often parroted: In these tough economic times, should we cut more social services or raise taxes? It's a false dichotomy. The third alternative is to stop warehousing our own people.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Bloom.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT