«In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States»,
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1831)
«Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror…. Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.»
– James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law (2008). (1)
The economic hardships of the past few years and the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement have made Americans more aware than at any time in living memory of the extraordinary inequalities of wealth that have built up in their society. From bloggers' datapoints to professors' treatises, a steady stream of publications has been feeding the nation's growing appetite for information on inequality and explanations for its emergence… A superabundance of startling statistics have circulated, such as the fact that the richest 20 percent of Americans hold 93 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 percent hold a combined one-third of one percent (2); that the ratio of CEO-to-worker pay went from 27:1 in 1973 to 275:1 by 2007 (3); that the effective tax rate of the richest 400 households dropped from 27 percent in 1992 to 17 percent in 2007 (4); that the life expectancy of American women fell from 14th to 41st (dead last among developed nations) from 1985 to 2010 (5), etc.
While awareness of the severity of economic inequality is gradually becoming common knowledge, interpretation of the consequences of this inequality and forecasts for its development have lagged. Among the more ominous consequences, no doubt, is the perpetuation of inequality from generation to generation. Social mobility in America has dropped in each of the last four decades, and the US now trails far behind historically class-bound Great Britain in this respect. (6) Only about 30 percent of those born into the bottom quintile now rise even as far as the median. (7) Since its inception – indeed since the period of colonization in the seventeenth century – America has justly conceived of itself as a land of opportunity, and less well-off Americans have always sought consolation in the possibility of working their way up the class ladder. Thus the erosion of social mobility is a reality that threatens the nation's identity. It is no surprise, therefore, that the mass media has done so little reporting on it. On a banal level, reporting on the ossification of the social structure will not improve audience ratings. On an ideological level, spreading the word about the evaporation of opportunity for an ever broader swathe of the population is likely to fuel anger, resentment, resistance, and eventually even violence on a meaningful scale.
Bigger than the Gulag
The starkest manifestation of social immobility is the enormous US prison system. This system has mushroomed over the last several decades, as a by-product of the Right's preferences for protecting the wealthy and punishing the poor, in place of the combination of progressive taxation and social programs that broadened prosperity through the middle of the 20th century. The US held only about 200,000 citizens in its prisons in 1970, but now it has more than 2.3 million, plus almost five million more on probation or parole. (8) More than 1 percent of the adult population is in prison, the highest rate in the world, and about six times the world average. The US has almost 25 percent of the entire world's prison population (9), and its inmates actually outnumber the population of the infamous Soviet Gulag system at its height. (10)
The extraordinary expansion of the prison system is a reflection not of rising crime rates – non-violent crime rates in America are low, relative to other developed countries (11) – but of escalating severity of the courts. Sentences in the US have doubled in duration over the last thirty years, such that Americans serve five to ten times as long as prisoners in France when convicted for the same crimes. (12) This, in turn, is a function of America's unique practice of electing judges and sheriffs. Candidates promising to be «tough on crime» tend to attract voters. They also attract campaign donations from corporations that profit from privatized aspects of the US prison system (Corrections Corporation of America being the best known). Such corporations have orchestrated passage of «model sentencing guidelines» and creeping privatization of the prison system over the past two decades. (13)
The direct cost of the prison system to taxpayers is prodigious, more than $60 billion per year, a fourfold rise over the last 25 years. (14) Private corporations involved in the prison system are reaping plenty of profits from the expansion, of course. But the pressure they exert on lawmakers serves to boost the expansion, and they saddle taxpayers with inefficiencies–fully privatized prisons tend to cost 5-10 percent more per inmate than do state-run prisons (these prisons had about 90,000 inmates in 2010, a rise of about 45% since 2000). (15)
As heavy as the direct costs of the system may be, its indirect costs are far greater. It spreads broken lives, broken families, and broken communities as a plague on the land. Of course defenders of the system on the Right insist that high rates of imprisonment constrain criminality, and some evidence suggests as much. (16) The most sophisticated sociologists of crime, however, have concluded that punitive law enforcement is not effective in reducing crime (neither, it should be added, is rehabilitation of criminals). Nor has the US's $1.5 trillion war on drugs done anything to reduce the rate of drug addiction. (17) The key to reducing crime, it appears, is a combination of police activity to limit opportunities for crime on the one hand, and restriction of punishment only to those offenders who pose serious threats to society (not to casual drug users, e.g.; over 400,000 people are imprisoned in the US on drug-related offenses). (18) Unless and until political discourse in the US matures to the point where this combined approach prevails, the country will continue to cement a large and growing caste of foresaken souls. And instead of realizing their potential to contribute to society, they and the prison system that swallows them will continue to impose huge direct and indirect costs on the country.
Warehousing Prisoners, Warehousing the Poor
While it would be rash to predict expansion of the prison system to continue at the rates attained over the last two or three decades, we have every reason to expect further growth for at least another decade or two. Rampaging wealth inequality is depriving the less privileged layers of society of opportunities they once enjoyed, in particular education. About 44 percent of American children now live in low-income households, and 22 percent live below the poverty line, up 30 percent in just the last ten years. (19) Naturally they will provide plentiful fuel for the so-called «school-to-prison pipeline». The erosion of middle class job openings in the next decade will work in the same direction (economists estimate that two-thirds of the jobs created in the US over the next ten years will be low-wage (20)), as will the precipitous collapse of funding for public mental health programs in most states in recent years. (21)
Given the absence of debate in Washington on reforming the prison system, we should anticipate further bloating of the prison system, and corresponding erosion of communities. The government's response to this deterioration is just as easy to anticipate. Just as government has chosen to warehouse instead of rehabilitate the prison population, it is choosing to warehouse instead of develop and cultivate the lower-income population. The package of tax policy measures President Obama signed on January 2nd enshrined low income tax rates for about 99 percent of the population on a permanent basis, thereby more or less ensuring the atrophy or abandonment of programs supporting the less well-off in society. Inequality will intensify still further, social mobility will shrivel, the country will forfeit huge chunks of its potential, and the immorality of the social structure will become ever less deniable.