Behind bars in the land of the "liberators"
By Eric Ruder | April 18, 2003 | Page 12
THE U.S. doesn't need to send its military thousands of miles away to free people from a cruel prison system. That's because the world's largest prison system is right here in the U.S.--and its victims are overwhelmingly Black and Latino.
One in every eight Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently behind bars--an incredible seven times the rate for white men of the same age. More than 2.1 million Americans are in jail or prison, making the U.S. the country that locks up more of its citizens than any other country.
Politicians who today mouth glib sayings about "liberation" and "freedom" have defended this gulag system by claiming that high incarceration rates are a response to high crime rates. But rates of violent crime are lower today than in the 1970s.
The real reason for the explosion in the U.S. prison population is the politicians themselves. Democrats and Republicans alike have spent the last two decades trumpeting their "law-and-order" credentials in a scramble for votes--supporting the "war on drugs," harsh sentencing laws like "three strikes and you're out" and the death penalty.
The human cost of these policies is monstrous. More than 20 percent of state prisoners and almost 60 percent of federal prisoners are serving time for drug charges, most of which are minor, nonviolent offenses. And more than 7,000 people across the U.S. are serving 25-year sentences or longer under a "three strikes" law--for committing three minor infractions. Like Leandro Andrade--who is behind bars for 50 years to life in California for stealing nine children's videotapes worth $154.
The U.S. is in the company of only two countries--Iran and Congo--when it comes to executing juveniles. And at the same time that growing numbers of Americans have doubts about the death penalty, Attorney General John Ashcroft has been overriding the decisions of federal prosecutors to impose more death sentences. At least 28 times, Ashcroft has intervened to seek a death sentence--and in 25 of those cases, the defendant was nonwhite.
But Ashcroft's race to execute is only the point of the spear. During the course of their lifetimes, 28 percent of all Black men--more than one out of every four--will spend some time behind bars. Meanwhile, corporate criminals like Enron's Ken Lay or WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers--who looted their companies out of millions--may not ever face charges, let alone stand trial or go to prison.
There are growing questions about such glaring inequality. In Ohio, the rate of death sentences imposed by juries is down by 80 percent since 1998. And in Texas, the state that far outpaces the rest in executions, a remarkable 69 percent of people think that the state has executed an innocent person.
In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get prison, there's only one conclusion: The justice system isn't just, but the struggle against it is.