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Originally published Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

America behind bars: The time is ripe for prison reform

For hard-to-defend reasons, and at staggering fiscal cost, the United States incarcerates people at a rate five times Great Britain's, nine times Germany's, 12 times Japan's, writes columnist Neal Peirce. It's time to reform this nation's prison system.

Syndicated columnist

The rest of the world is starting to notice the United States' incarceration follies.

Case in point: "Why America locks up so many people," the recent cover story of the Economist magazine, showing the face of a forlorn Statue of Liberty behind bars.

The grim statistics noted: Some 2.3 million people, more than the population of 15 of our states, are now incarcerated — one in 100 adults. That's quadruple our 1970 imprisonment rate. For hard-to-defend reasons, and at staggering fiscal cost, we incarcerate people at a rate five times Great Britain's, nine times Germany's, 12 times Japan's.

Congress is on the brink of our first national reassessment in many decades. Sen. James Webb, D-Va., is proposing a National Criminal Justice Commission to take an 18-month, stem-to-stern look at the system, its shortcomings and alternatives. Webb's bill recently passed the House without opposition; now the question is whether the Senate can avoid a procedural objection by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and bring it to a vote.

The Economist notes that along with truly dangerous serial rapists and murderers, as well as Bernie Madoff-like white-collar criminals we want to punish severely, the United States incarcerates astounding numbers of low-level blue- and white-collar offenders.

Among them are street-level drug dealers, people accused of such violations as embezzling, driving without an operator's license or transgressing environmental laws. In addition to voluminous state laws, there are some 4,000 federally defined offenses backed up by thousands more regulations.

The Economist tells the story of George Norris, a 65-year-old Texan who imported orchids. He was suddenly accosted in his home by armed police in flak jackets, frisked, held incommunicado for four hours as officers ransacked his home, and eventually charged with smuggling flowers into America, a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Norris, who believed himself innocent though he admitted some of his Latin American flower suppliers might have been sloppy in their paperwork, had never made more than $20,000 a year in his importing business. But he was thrown into prison with suspected murderers and drug dealers, accused of being the "kingpin" of an international smuggling ring, ultimately sentenced to 17 months — and then, despite his condition with Parkinson's disease, put in solitary confinement for 71 days for bringing prescription sleeping pills with him to prison.

The tough question raised by the Norris case and others like it: Are some prosecutors going overboard, using their extraordinary powers beyond clear justice requirements? Under threat from prosecutors, it's claimed, even defendants who are convinced they're innocent may enter guilty pleas to shorten their potential sentences.

And then there's the incarceration youth-aging syndrome. Americans seem anxious to get their youthful violent offenders behind bars, and it's happening. But in reality, there are few muggers over 30.

Why long sentences when classic penology says swift and certain punishment is what works? We already have more than 200,000 prisoners over 50, often in failing health (with vast medical costs). Yet if released, they're unlikely to offend again. When imprisonment costs from Mississippi's $18,000 a year to roughly $50,000 in California, when schools and social services are being cut to the bone, do long sentences serve the public interest?

Webb acknowledges that when he started discussions on today's criminal system, "we got a lot of unease, particularly from law enforcement's side." But he then met with more than 100 organizations, explaining the need and balance of his commission proposal. Now, he claims, it's been "scrubbed through the entire philosophical spectrum with great support."

There's emerging evidence, developed by such groups as the Pew Center on the States and the Vera Institute of Justice, that we've reached a point of diminishing, if any, public-safety returns from cascading levels of imprisonment. Some states have begun to reform their practices and reduce incarceration, without impairing public safety. A typical measure: Make nonviolent drug offenders eligible for parole or probation instead of incarceration.

Reform's potential net effect? Saving billions of public dollars, for sure. But also fewer disrupted families, embittered ex-cons, and communities impacted by high percentages of youth imprisoned. And fewer, as The Economist puts it, decades-long sentences "watching hairs go white, and lifetimes ebb away."

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages

of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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