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 world's 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 public's 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 crimes—but we are probably incarcerating people who even don't need to be."
Among the people "who don't need to be" in prison are nonviolent offenders—especially nonviolent drug offenders. The lion's share of the increase in prison population has been driven by drug offenders. And we are not talking "drug kingpins," either. As Kentucky's 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 chance—it 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 restitution—which 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. Let's lock people up that are a danger to society. Let's not lock people up whom we are just mad at.
This commentary is part two of a four-part series. It first aired on April 1, 2008.