1 in 100

In case you missed the recent report, our prison-industrial complex has reached a new height (or depth, if you prefer).  One of every 100 Americans is in prison.  Sadly, we are spending a massive amount of resources when a huge number of these people are non-violent drug offenders.  I'm all for keeping the killers, robbers, rapists, and all-around thugs in prison for a long time, but due to mandatory minimum drug sentences, a marijuana dealer may well end up in prison for longer than a rapist.  Over at Atlantic Monthly, Reihan Salam has a nice commentary on the fundamental unfairness of our prison sentences:

As Paul Cassell told Adam Liptak of The New York Times,
“One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every
100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense.” And that sounds
reasonable enough. Yet we shouldn't forget the number of alleged
offenders who lack adequate legal representation, or have been
sentenced under onerous mandatory minimum or three-strikes laws that
carry unreasonably stiff sentences for offenses any reasonable person
would consider nonserious.

Which leads us to the broader question of sentence length.
Economists Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote found that sentence
length in vehicular homicides varied dramatically
according to victim characteristics. What does this mean, exactly?
Because vehicular homicides tend to be fairly random, you'd think
victim characteristics would matter very little. It turns out, however,
that offenders are given far longer sentences for killing women rather
than men and whites rather than blacks. We're not talking about victims
with criminal records or victims in the drug trade, etc. Rather, we're
talking about random innocents mowed down in the street. To put it
crudely, it seems pretty clear that the criminal justice system values
some lives less than others. Not shocking news, of course. But it
should be.

Not surprisingly, in a non-vehicular homicide, you better believe who you kill has a huge impact on the sentence.  If you want to avoid the death penalty, just don't kill white people. 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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