Last year, the United States marked an inauspicious milestone. The Department of Justice announced that as of June 2002, for the first time ever, two million of its citizens were behind bars. One of every 142 Americans was in prison or jail, one of the highest rates in the world. One in 37 is or has been incarcerated, including one in three African American males.
The two-million mark could have been hailed as an achievement. President Gerald Ford all but set the goal of the past three decades of crime fighting in a 1975 address to Yale Law School. Since violent crime was caused by a “relatively few persistent criminals,” the solution was simply to “get them off the streets,” to “separate the law-breakers from the law-abiding society.” Ford was complaining specifically about plea-bargain-happy prosecutors at a time when the nation’s inmate population was less than half a million. But then and since, the call to “get tough on crime” has dominated political rhetoric.