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Self-harm: Unwise choices

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In her landmark book, "The March of Folly," historian Barbara Tuchman related how various governments pursued unwise courses, bringing damage or ruin onto themselves.

As we often note, America unwisely hurts itself by squandering $1 trillion a year on militarism -- when wars are fading, and no other modern nation wastes even one-tenth as much on warmaking.

Another self-inflicted injury to America arises from over-harsh laws that send excessive numbers of Americans to prison, saddling U.S. taxpayers with huge costs and hurting the U.S. economy.

America jails five times more citizens than other nations do. Does this mean that Americans are five times more criminal? No, people are mostly alike everywhere. Instead, it means that the U.S. public mentality is five times more punitive.

This country's extreme incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers more than $70 billion per year. It wrecks millions of families, producing ex-convicts with little chance to find jobs, leaving their children in poverty. America is harmed by its own lock-'em-up obsession.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., wants to create a National Criminal Justice Commission to seek ways to ease what he calls the "deeply corrosive crisis" of over-punishment. He wrote:

"We have 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's known prison population. More than 7 million Americans are incarcerated, on probation or on parole; 2.27 million Americans are in prison -- five times the world's average incarceration rate. At the same time, two-thirds of Americans say there is more crime today than a year ago."

Webb said America's mass jailing is "draining billions of dollars from our economy, destroying notions of neighborhood and family in hundreds of communities across the country, and -- most importantly -- not making our country a safer or fairer place."

The U.S. war on drugs is chiefly to blame for this mess. And low-income blacks are its foremost targets. Although some studies find that white youths peddle more dope than African Americans do, policing and prosecution focus strongly on jailing blacks. Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander wrote a book titled "The New Jim Crow," calling this unfair system a modern type of racial discrimination.

Putting millions of minor drug abusers into rehab instead of cells would greatly reduce America's prison crisis.

Several police and religious groups have endorsed Sen. Webb's call for a national study commission. We hope West Virginia's members of Congress support his plan.


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