According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, there are more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails: one in every 99 adults. We are by far the worlds largest jailer. Our closest rival, China, has a third fewer prisoners than we do, despite having four times as many people.
The numbers get worse the closer you look: One in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars. And for African-Americans, the number is one in nine.
Then there are the costs: an average of nearly $24,000 a year to incarcerate one inmate and that does not count the building. At least five states spend more on corrections than on higher education. For the rest, the cost of corrections is saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs none of them can afford.
These increases in prison population and the soaring costs are the result of policy choices we have all made. Since the late 80s, elected officials have responded to the publics fear of crime by lengthening sentences and enacting laws like three-strikes and you are out. I know, I was a Senator and Attorney General during that time and was in the midst of it.
If these measures had made us safer, they might be worth it. But they have not. For starters, most of the increase in prison populations took place after crime rates began to go down and continued even after they bottomed out. In a sense, the process is on auto-pilot, doing what it does regardless of the crime rates.
As a result, according to David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation, we are not incarcerating all the people who commit serious crimesbut we are probably incarcerating people who even dont need to be.
Among the people who dont need to be in prison are nonviolent offendersespecially nonviolent drug offenders. The lions share of the increase in prison population has been driven by drug offenders. And we are not talking drug kingpins, either. As Kentuckys Justice Secretary put it, We are just getting the people who went out and got caught. We are getting the low-hanging fruit.
This cannot continue indefinitely. Tough has had its chance¾it is time for smart. We need to punish low-risk offenders in ways that save tax dollars, hold offenders accountable, and actually rehabilitate them.
This is the position that Prison Fellowship and its criminal justice affiliate, Justice Fellowship, have advocated for nearly three decades. Non-dangerous offenders should be punished in ways that make it more likely [that they] will be able to pay victim restitution, child support, and taxes.
That includes things like intensive probation, electronic monitoring, and community service. The only limit here is our creativity.
And our foundation is Scripture. When Zacchaeus admitted to Jesus that he had defrauded tax payers, he offered to pay restitutionwhich was in keeping with the Law.
Christians can lead the way. We can move beyond the mere toughness rhetoric that locks up Americans in expensive prison cells for reasons that are only tangentially related to public safety. Lets lock people up that are a danger to society. Lets not lock people up whom we are just mad at.
This commentary is part two of a four-part series.
From BreakPoint®, April 1, 2008, Copyright 2008, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. BreakPoint® and Prison Fellowship Ministries® are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship