WITH less than 5% of the world’s population, the United States holds roughly a quarter of its prisoners: more than 2.3m people, including 1.6m in state and federal prisons and over 700,000 in local jails and immigration pens. Per head, the incarceration rate in the land of the free has risen seven-fold since the 1970s, and is now five times Britain’s, nine times Germany’s and 14 times Japan’s. At any one time, one American adult in 35 is in prison, on parole or on probation. A third of African-American men can expect to be locked up at some point, and one in nine black children has a parent behind bars.
...More and more Americans accept that the harm caused by mass imprisonment now exceeds its benefits. Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s 1994 crime bill filled many a cell, has now changed her mind. On the right, fiscal conservatives decry the burden on taxpayers, while Christians talk of mercy. Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas and a Republican presidential candidate, boasts of his record of closing three prisons in his state. Nationwide, the incarcerated population appears to have plateaued; it should be sharply reduced.
A good start would be to end the war on drugs, which would do less harm if they were taxed, regulated and sold in shops, not alleys, as marijuana is in Colorado and Washington state. In fact, the drug war is already ebbing: in 1997 drug offenders were 27% of all prisoners; now they are around 20%. That could be cut to zero if drugs were legalised.
The next step would be to amend or repeal rules that prevent judges from judging each case on its merits, such as state and federal “mandatory minimum” sentences and “three strikes” rules that compel courts to lock up even relatively minor repeat offenders for most of their lives...