Not only are most American prisons and jails packed to the gills, says Princeton University's John DiIulio:
''Hundreds of them are also filthy, vice-ridden places. Few offer inmates any meaningful opportunity to work, to achieve literacy, or to free themselves from the shackles of substance abuse.''
Our national government doesn't seem to care a whit. Attorney General William Barr recently ordered an about-face on Justice Department policy which for years had pressed the states to relieve gross prison overcrowding.
No more. Why not, said Mr. Barr, let state prisons get as overcrowded as the feds' own pens (165 percent of designed capacity)? Since state prisons are at just 115 percent of capacity, he calculated one could pack another 286,000 beds in them and still leave them no worse off than federal prisons.
''The choice is clear,'' said the attorney general. ''More prison space or more crime.''
But why should anyone believe Mr. Barr's prescription when our murder rate and our incarceration rate, escalating in tandem, are already the worst in the industrialized world? We already imprison over one million people: When would one stop?
Ninety-eight percent of inmates will one day be walking our streets again. The more people we put in the bestial environment of prison, the more bestiality we'll suffer in our society later.
If we put all the petty drug offenders and other non-violent criminals packing our prisons into alternative programs, we'd have plenty of space for the truly dangerous prisoners. We could start closing pens instead of opening them.
The fact is, Minnesota's assistant corrections commissioner, Daniel O'Brien, told the New York Times: ''There's no relationship between the incarceration rate and violent crime. We're in the business of tricking people into thinking that spending hundreds of millions on new prisons will make them safer.'' ''It's a kind of a fraud, no doubt,'' another criminologist said.
We are squandering money on high walls, barbed wire, motion detectors and massive guard staffs, when the wealth of the nation is desperately needed for training, education, drug rehabilitation, environmental improvement, economic development and jobs.
William Chambliss, a Georgetown University sociologist, puts the case eloquently: ''Drug clinics do more to rehabilitate drug addicts than prison; family counseling reduces family violence more effectively than police; and education, more than any other factor, reduces a propensity to crime.''
Our ''war on drugs'' needs a drastic overhaul. Short of legalizing drugs, we could confine arrests to big-time dealers and stop clogging jails with small-time possessors and handlers. Seventy percent of federal anti-drug funding is directed toward law enforcement -- even while drug-treatment programs have long waiting lists and in some localities have been closed down in this recession.
A Delaware study found that for every drug offender sentenced to prison, three could be treated in an in-patient program and 16 on an out-patient basis. ''We are creating an American gulag for the drug war,'' declares the Drug Policy Foundation.
Noting that 54 percent of new federal prison inmates are accused of drug-related offenses, Princeton's Professor DiIulio says there's ''enough evidence to choke a horse'' that drug rehabilitation reduces recidivism. Without much public encouragement from the top, he reports, federal prison-system leaders are responding by expanding drug-treatment efforts.
Baltimore's Mayor Schmoke remains the only leading politician who's had the courage to suggest our ''war on drugs'' is a gross mistake. Except for Delaware's Michael Castle, not a single governor has made a major point of how prison costs, which now range up to $30,000 per inmate per year, threaten to break strained public treasuries.
Last year, state outlays for corrections soared by 16 percent -- the most inflationary single element in state budgets.
Why are we sold on ''brute force'' solutions? Prison fortresses with their heavily armed guards are the domestic equivalent of the vast armaments build-up the Reagan administration led us into in the '80s. Both are mindlessly expensive; neither solves anything. The ''evil empire'' collapsed without reference to our $1 trillion arms orgy. Prisons cost vast sums and demonstrably don't deter crime.
Yet where are the leaders, state or national, to help return us to our senses? Democrats in Congress voted for a crime bill almost as punitive and rigid as the tough-on-criminals formula the Bush administration wanted.
Governors ought to be speaking up because it's they, not corrections directors or prison wardens, who are the responsible policy-setting leaders of their states.
Presidential candidates should raise their voices because the issue is one of fundamental national priorities and values.
But we hear only silence.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.