An article in today's New York Times begins with the following:
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
The article goes on to state that:
Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.
For decades, our national criminal justice policy- under both Republican and Democratic administrations- has boiled down to "lock 'em up; it'll teach 'em a lesson."
Perhaps, in light of statistics such as those cited above, instead of trying to teach lessons with prisons we should, as a nation, learn the lesson that while crime does indeed pay for the prison-industrial complex, it comes at a price neither our treasury nor our people can afford.
Consider this passage from a 1998 Atlantic Monthly article:
Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation's criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent.
The previously quoted NYT article also compares incarceration rates of industrialized nations:
[The U.S] has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.) The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.
If you want to know how much things have changed since the nation was founded as a "city on a hill," the New York Times includes the following quotes:
“In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in “Democracy in America.”
“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research."