WASHINGTON -- Every now and then the best of societies goes a little crazy and embraces monstrous social policies that become almost impossible to reverse. The United States has done that regarding crime, especially drug abuse.
Our states are spending almost $30 billion annually on prisons, which house three times the number of inmates imprisoned 20 years ago. We are incarcerating our people at a rate never known in any civilized society.
While bond issues to build schools are often failing, this country is willingly building a 1,000-bed jailhouse or prison every week. Building prisons has become the great new American cottage industry or the perceived economic salvation of many rural and other economically depressed areas.
The growth and clout of this industry is such that California pays a prison guard of moderate experience $51,000 a year but paid its public school teachers an average of $43,000 a year in 1996-97.
In politically inspired moves to prove they were not "soft on crime" -- and in futile and self-defeating efforts to declare "victory" in the "war on drugs" -- our lawmakers have disempowered judges and decreed laws and minimum sentences that have made almost one in 150 Americans a jailbird. And for African-Americans and Hispanics, one in five faces the curse of the lockup because of political madness over "law and order."
Finally, millions of Americans are awakening to the reality that incarcerating 400,000 people -- most of them small fry -- on drug charges has not reduced the curse of drug abuse in America. And they are seeing that even as crime has fallen drastically, the drive for more jails and prisons at mushrooming costs does not slow down.
So some people are beginning to call for judges to use their discretion in sentencing first-time, minor drug offenders. Instead of jail time, such nonviolent offenders might be given probation or other options.
President Clinton and many Republican leaders are saying that "better education" must be the American priority as we enter a new millennium. They and the people know that states cannot afford to spend $4 billion a year, as California soon will, to run a prison system and still finance school systems that will meet the needs of this technological age. But they also know that many powerful forces have a vested interest in the continued expansion of the prison industry, so redirecting resources will be extremely difficult politically.
Fear of crime, and political demagoguery about it, made it easy to devote unconscionable amounts of tax dollars to jails and prisons. It is impossible to generate the same kind of fear regarding the need for schools, hospitals, housing or anything else positively productive for this society. Barring, that is, some extraordinary political leadership that reshapes public opinion on a grand scale.
The uprising against the current outrageous situation seems great enough that any number of politicians might take the lead without fear of falling to the old cries, "soft on crime."
Enough Americans seem now to understand that the policy of locking up every little gnat and fruit fly caught in the web of the drug peddlers has been a failure. Still, the will and courage to admit error and change policy seems to be in short supply.
We need millions more Americans shouting, "Stop the prison madness" to ensure that our political leaders will become bold enough to return to sanity.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 3/12/99