Bulging prisons

April 16, 1991

To hear law-and-order types tell it, the solution to crime is to lock up the criminals. Fine -- but where? At what cost? And to what purpose? Already, the United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any country in the world, and spends $16 billion a year doing it. For every 100,000 Americans, 426 are in prisons -- as compared to 333 per 100,000 in South Africa and 268 in the Soviet Union. That's some company we keep, isn't it?

After a frenzied decade of building more jails and prisons and stiffening criminal sentences, what does this country have to show for its trouble? In Florida, where former Gov. Bob Martinez, now the nation's drug czar, presided over a near-doubling of the state's prison capacity, jails are so overcrowded that, on average, the state releases convicts after they have served merely a third of their sentences. Meanwhile, Florida has the highest crime rate of all the states. Sooner or later, the nation must come to grips with the fact that prisons don't end crime.

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