The United States is not the Land of the Free

March 3, 2009 at 9:24 am 2 comments

I came across a story today stating that one in every thirty-one adults in the U.S. is in the corrections system.  This is the highest rate in the world.  This makes a lie of the often heard claim that the United States is the most free country in the world.  If we are so free, why are so many of us locked up?

Of course, not everyone involved in the corrections system is locked up.  Many are on parole or on probation.  However, according to the Department of Justice, the “United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world.”

Consider that for a moment.  Americans often believe China to be less free than the U.S.  It is communist, after all.  But, if China has  four times as many people as we do, but we have more people in our jails than they do, we aren’t exactly a free country.

Some might claim that these statistics don’t show us to be less free.  They might argue that we have a larger criminal element in our society.  I don’t buy that.   That would imply that Americans are grossly less ethical or less moral than the rest of the world by a large factor.  It would be difficult to accept given our large immigrant population.  Do people immigrate here to embark on a life of crime?

The statistics also show that “[t]he numbers are also concentrated among groups, with a little more than 9 percent of black adults in prisons or jails or on probation or parole, as opposed to some 4 percent of Hispanics and 2 percent of whites.”   The population of the U.S. by race is the reverse order of that figure.  Whites make up the largest share of the American population, followed by Hispanics and then blacks.  I find it hard to believe that justice is color-blind, much less blind.

The gist of the article is about the cost of imprisoning so many Americans.  It argues that probation and parole are less costly for non-violent criminals.  And I would agree.  But, the article never questions the basic methods of the U.S. justice system.  And that would be to make so many things illegal.

I would argue that many of the non-violent offenders in the corrections system are there because of drugs.  Instead of making soft drugs, like marijuana, illegal they should be legal but regulated.  We need to stop punishing people for victimless crimes and let people be the victims of their own decisions, instead.  It is a lot less costly, and much easier to manage.

It is often said that with freedom comes responsibility.  The implication is that people who are less responsible will eventually become less free.  But, is it not possible that if we are less free then we eventually become less responsible?

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. steventhomas  |  March 4, 2009 at 4:38 am

    Nice post.

    I totally agree that this is one of the most profoundly interesting paradoxes–or “ideological contradictions”–of the United States.

    Angela Davis has just published a really excellent book analyzing the long messed up history of America’s penal system. I haven’t read it, but I heard her speak about it. She draws a connection between it and the institution of slavery.

    Reply
  • 2. Sophia Marsden  |  April 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Drugs, including soft drugs, are illegal in most countries and yet America still has a ridiculous incarceration rate.
    I think it’s more likely to be a cultural problem. America is one of the most individualistic countries in the world and it grew up out of (even though many influences have played against this) ‘Protestant Perfectionism’.

    These two forces played against each other (even though both actually grew out of the same source) because the individualist side glorifies rebellion, challenging of norms, resisting authority etc. Whilst the perfectionist element sees the government as the proper way to regulate human behavior (rather than through social norms, which of course the individualist side tears down). The individualism counteracts non-legislative methods of controlling behavior, the perfectionism demands high degrees of behavioral control if necessary through law.

    On top of that you have the fact that even today in some places ethnic minority populations are not properly integrated into the mainstream of American society and so on…

    There is a lot more trouble in America than just illegal drugs.

    Reply

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