With exceptions (since justice is imperfect), inmates aren't innocents, of course. They all had victims, directly or indirectly. And many are plea bargainers suspected of more serious crimes that couldn't be proved in court. We're certainly right to err on the side of safety with violent offenders, drug and human traffickers, rapists, anyone guilty of child molestation – where there is no basis for trust and no room for error.
But the 10-fold increase since 1980 of incarceration for small-time drug use has put half a million people, one-fifth of the total prison population, behind bars. While crime comes in degrees, the basic risk assessment we apply to every other human enterprise – from military interventions to medicine to making children's toys – doesn't seem to apply here. Instead, the crudest and broadest possible sentencing mandates treat many offenders as domestic terrorists, with little regard for the severity of the crime or the risk to society.
Being "tough" on crime should mean getting results. But more than two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Why? Because we recycle nonviolent offenders for minor, technical violations of probation or parole. Miss a parole appointment? Back to jail.
Mass imprisonment of nonviolent offenders amounts to justice by lock-down – and lets government off the hook for results. The only stakeholders this system serves are elected officials, including judges, who are rewarded for posing as "tough" on crime without solving it – and the lobbyists and interests paid to build and run prisons.
We'll pay the prison industrial complex at least $50 billion this year to build jails that are essentially crime schools where nonviolent offenders are taught violence. That's an average of $24,000 a year to make each inmate just go away. What are we getting for our money?
For starters, inhumane conditions that are unworthy of America. Prisons punish inmates who are addicted or mentally disabled. A federal court found that in California a prisoner dies a needless death due to inadequate medical care or malpractice every six to seven days. The use of solitary confinement is spreading.