The November 9 Supreme Court arguments on whether it is cruel and unusual to impose life in prison without parole on violent juveniles who have not killed anybody understandably got prominent media coverage.
But a far more important imprisonment story gets less attention because it’s a running sore that rarely generates dramatic "news." That is our criminal-justice system’s incarceration of a staggering 2.3 million people, about half of them for nonviolent crimes, including most of the 500,000 locked up for drug offenses.
Forty percent of these prisoners are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, and most are poor and uneducated. This has had a devastating impact on poor black families and neighborhoods, where it has become the norm for young men — many of them fathers — to spend time in prison and emerge bitter, unemployable, and unmarriageable. (These numbers come from studies cited by Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a reform group.)
America imprisons seven times as many people as it did in 1972, several times as many per capita as other Western nations, and many more than any other nation in the world.
Yes, violent criminals should be locked up for long enough to protect the rest of us. But the mass, long-term imprisonment of nonviolent, nondangerous offenders in recent decades and excessive terms for others has made us no safer while ruining countless lives and converting potentially productive citizens into career criminals.