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Cages: High U.S. imprisonment

It's shameful that America has the world's worst rate of jailing its people. This implies that Americans are more criminal than residents of other nations. But everyone knows that isn't true. We think the horrific U.S. lockup rate is caused by harsh, punitive, vengeful, "lock 'em up" laws.

Currently, more than 2 million American adults are behind bars in federal, state, county and city facilities. And nearly 5 million others are on probation or parole -- a total of 7 million.

America's imprisonment rate is over 700 per 100,000 population, while other advanced nations average around 100 per 100,000. The ugly U.S. rate includes high incarceration of blacks and Hispanics, largely for drug offenses. Overcrowded prisons cost U.S. taxpayers dearly.

One report says: "At year-end 2007, the United States had less than 5 percent of the world's population and 23.4 percent of the world's prison and jail population."

Significantly, Deep South "red states" jail far more people than do northeast "blue states."

Thank heaven, the Obama administration and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder are trying to reduce this dismal problem. Holder has ordered federal prosecutors around America to cease charging drug suspects under law sections that require long mandatory sentences, and cite other law sections instead.

Further, he wants Congress to shorten mandatory terms. Three different proposals for that purpose currently are pending.

"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate -- not merely to convict, warehouse and forget," Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco. "...Widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.... It imposes a significant economic burden -- totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone -- and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

Among those human and moral costs: millions of ex-convicts are almost unemployable because few firms will hire them. Idled, they become a drag on society, and many have little choice but to slip back into crime.

Holder said America's prison population "has grown at an astonishing rate -- by almost 800 percent" since 1980, and nearly half of today's inmates are serving drug terms. He said America has created "a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration" that "traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities."

It's time for the grim lock-'em-up mentality to cease damaging America. We hope West Virginia's members of Congress support the crusade to reduce long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.


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