The US has a unique distinction: It is the world's greatest prison state.
The US, "the land of the free," has the biggest prison population in the world and the highest rate of prisoners per capita of all countries—including countries that President Bush believes need liberating by US armed forces.
Even China, with one-party rule and a population that is 4.5 times larger than the US population, has 30% fewer total prisoners than the US. China's per capita rate is a small fraction of the US rate.
The conservatives' war on drugs, launched during President Reagan's first term, bears much of the blame. Between 1980 and 2000, a period during which the US population grew by 21%, the number of state and federal inmates soared by 312%.
Almost one-half million Americans are in prison for drugs-only offenses. Many of them are innocent or were encouraged by federal agents or informers posing as friends to transport small amounts of drugs as a favor.
Consider Elaine Bartlett, pardoned by New York Gov. George Pataki in 2000 after serving 16 years of a 20 year sentence. Bartlett was tricked by an acquaintance, who turned out to be a government informant, into taking four ounces of cocaine to Albany. Bartlett was given 20 years even though she had no history of arrests or convictions and left 4 children behind, the oldest being 10 years old.
Most government informants are real criminals who escape charges or are given lenient plea bargains in exchange for helping prosecutors boost their conviction rates by entrapping innocent people. It is a disgrace to the US legal system that judges permit such false convictions.
Many other innocents are in jail because police dropped small packets of drugs—or in the Texas cases, bags of ground up wallboard—into their cars when stopped, allegedly for traffic offenses.
Society gained nothing but more criminals by locking up Bartlett. Her six year old son was traumatized by his mother's absence. At the end of every prison visit he had to be forcefully removed by prison guards from clinging to his mother. By the time he was 10 years old, he was a drug runner. He bought his first gun at age 12 and was in prison by age 16. You can read the whole story in the book, "Life on the Outside," by Jennifer Gonnerman.
With a legal system that mass produces criminals, prisons are being constructed at a breathtaking rate. An Urban Institute study, "The New Landscape of Imprisonment," released on April 29, documents the boom in prison construction during the last two decades.
Jeremy Travis, one of the authors, says: "The prison network is now deeply intertwined with American life, deeply integrated into the physical and economic infrastructure of a large number of American counties. It provides jobs for construction workers and guards, and because the inmates are counted as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated, it means more federal and state funding and greater political representation for these counties." [Study Tracks Boom in Prisons and Notes Impact on Counties By FOX BUTTERFIELD, New York Times, April 30, 2004]
A number of states now have prisons in almost one-third of their counties. Florida has at least one prison in 78% of its counties! In 1923 there were only 61 prisons in the entire US.
Another conservative idea—prison privatization—has created a contractual monster that must be fed with a constant stream of inmates. A variety of new police Gestapos have been created that help to keep the massive prison complex—our own Gulag Archipelago—filled.
The most dangerous is Child Protective Services, created by Walter Mondale in response to his constituency of anti-family feminists and "child therapists" in need of employment. CPS was set up on the insane assumption that a large percentage of families committed "child abuse." CPS offices are everywhere, and employees outnumber child abusers.
The child sex abuse witch hunt in Wenatchee, Washington, was set off when the local CPS office was told to find some cases to justify its budget. It took years to expose and overturn one of the greatest cases of prosecutorial misconduct in human history. Dozens of families were destroyed and 50 children were put into foster care.
The latest report from Child Protective Services Watch documents that children placed in our "child protection system" are 5 times more likely to die from physical abuse and 11 times more likely to be sexually abused than they would be from remaining in the homes from which they are removed!
Mondale and his "child advocates" got their Gestapo legislation passed in 1974. A quarter century later there are 500,000 US kids in the "child protection system." Soon there will be one million because of the perverse incentive that funds the system. The federal government pays state and country child welfare services a bounty for each child seized from a family. Linda Wallace Pate, a California attorney specialized in foster cases, calls it a "kids for cash" system.
The evidence is overwhelming that children are extremely traumatized by being ripped from families and placed in foster care.
It turns out that the overwhelming majority of abused children suffer the abuse from their single mothers' live-in boyfriends or overnight lovers. Child abuse is rare in two-parent families, so CPS has expanded abuse to cover spanking—even playground bruises are grounds for seizing children—and shouting ("verbal abuse").
The war on crime has turned even parenting into a dangerous occupation.
One can't help but wonder whether the US itself is in need of liberation.
COPYRIGHT CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
Paul Craig Roberts was Associate Editor of the WSJ editorial page, 1978-80, and columnist for "Political Economy." During 1981-82 he was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy. He is the author of Supply-Side Revolution: An Insider's Account of Policymaking in Washington.