Nobody in his right mind would advocate the abolition of prisons. However, no matter how much we agree that putting people in prison is often necessary, we shouldn’t forget that in so doing we limit these people’s human rights. Hence the importance of imprisoning people only when this is necessary.
The problem with the U.S. criminal justice system is that it looks as if this rule isn’t respected: more people are incarcerated than strictly necessary. Just look at some country comparisons here. Either U.S. citizens are distinctively evil, or people and governments in other countries have no problem with crime.
Of course, neither is the case. I can see at least 3 real reasons for the discrepancy in incarceration rates between the U.S. and the rest of the world. It seems that rehabilitation efforts can be much extended, which would lower the number of repeat offenders and the rate of people returning to prison. Another reason is that a large proportion of people in U.S. prisons are either mentally ill or drug abusers. Both types of people belong in hospital rather than in prison.
But the main problem is the misguided “war on drugs”. As a result of the combination of strict prohibition and hard-handed punitive criminal justice, a large group of U.S. citizens find themselves in prison for much too long and for a crime that’s in many cases victimless. Making drugs illegal creates more problems than it solves:
Even a casual observer can see that much of the damage done in the US by illegal drugs is a result of the fact that they are illegal, not the fact that they are drugs. Vastly more lives are blighted by the brutality of prohibition, and by the enormous criminal networks it has created, than by the substances themselves. This is true of cocaine and heroin as well as of soft drugs such as marijuana. But the assault on consumption of marijuana sets the standard for the policy’s stupidity. Nearly half of all Americans say they have tried marijuana. That makes them criminals in the eyes of the law. Luckily, not all of them have been found out – but when one is grateful that most law-breakers go undetected, there is something wrong with the law. Clive Crook (source)
The damage done by the war on drugs ranges from gang violence, HIV/AIDS infections from reused needles, OD’s from tainted drugs, political violence and destabilization in producing countries, to an erosion of civil liberties:
Since a drug transaction has no victims in the ordinary sense, witnesses to assist a prosecution are in short supply. US drug-law enforcement tends to infringe civil liberties, relying on warrantless searches, entrapment, extorted testimony in the form of plea bargains, and so forth. Clive Crook (source)
The benefits of the war on drugs are, on the other hand, indeterminable: drug use is down only moderately. Prohibition has failed as a policy, as it has before in U.S. history. Time to loosen up.