The Politics of Prisons

Don't miss this New York Times editiorial on mandatory minimum sentencing and on why politicians need to keep the prisons full.

Seldom has a public policy done so much damage so quickly. But changes in the draconian sentencing laws have come very slowly. That is partly because the public thinks keeping a large chunk of the population behind bars is responsible for the reduced crime rates of recent years. Studies cast doubt on that theory, since they show drops in crime almost everywhere - even in states that did not embrace mandatory minimum sentences or mass imprisonment. In addition, these damaging policies have done nothing to curb the drug trade.

Prison should be saved for the violent offenders who pose a serious threat to others. It should not be used as a panacea for all of society's ills. The Times also takes on the booming private prison industry - and the practice of counting inmates as residents of a county for political purposes, even though they are denied the right to vote while incarcerated:

The business of building and running the jailhouse has become a mammoth industry with powerful constituencies that favor the status quo. Prison-based money and political power have distorted the legislative landscape in ways that will be difficult to undo.

...While other political forces support the mandatory sentences - most notably the powerful local prosecutors - prison rights advocates have recently begun to argue that prison district politicians are more concerned about keeping the prisons full than about crime. The idea of counting inmates as voters in the counties that imprison them is particularly repulsive given that inmates are nearly always stripped of the right to vote. The practice recalls the early United States under slavery, when slaves were barred from voting but counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation in Congress.

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