The United States has 7.3 million citizens locked up or on parole. No dictator or tyrant has ever come close to such shocking numbers of incarceration. That's one out of every 31 Americans, in jail or under the thumb of a parole officer,who can send them back to prison.
One of every four of us now have a "criminal" record for violating any of over 314,000 laws that carry prison as a penalty. While real crime has been plummeting for decades, ever more draconian laws and sentences are passed and handed down, respectively, robbing American citizens of their rights and the opportunity to succeed.
To put this in perspective, the 'land of the free' would have to set 7 million of these 7.3 million prisoners free, just to be on par with communist China's prison population. That's how far out of bounds our nation is today.
That big scarlet "F" on one's chest for "Felon" is also a job and opportunity killer for the one in four Americans who carry it like Hester Prynne carried her "A". Laws and sentences target minorities, making this the new Jim Crow era with prisons supplanting plantations.
But could it be that the winds of change are finally upon us? There are stirrings in our two-headed, one-bodied party system that would indicate some semblance of sanity is finally coming to both Dems and Repubs, with Libertarian-leading Rand Paul leading the charge.
Paul's appeals have been two-fold. He seems to be awakening Republicans to the gross waste of flushing $80 billion a year down the toilet to keep (mostly) non-violent marijuana smokers in jail or prison. That waste is just at the federal level, by the way.
Senator Paul has made equally convincing arguments on the Democratic side of the aisle questioning the constitutional basis for such crazy restrictions of freedom, and those arguments seem to be resonating as well. When one can go to prison for catching rainwater off his or her own roof or for helping set a whale free that was accidentally caught in a fishing net, things have clearly gone too far.
With 314,000 ways to send us to prison, it's just a matter of who gets picked to be queen for a day. I once had a prosecutor tell me, "All of you out there have done 'something'. We just haven't gotten around to you yet." Unfortunately, he was correct under our current Too many laws, too little Justice way of doing things, and it is past time for change.
It would not be unfair to describe this as the most pressing moral and financial problem in America. Imagine if we spent half of that $80 billion a year trying to build these troubled young lives into productive citizens rather than destroying them and their futures through decades of incarceration? Would that be so bad? We'd save money doing the right thing.
Meanwhile, almost none of what is being done in our "justice" system can be found in the United States Constitution, though it is still supposed to be the ultimate law of the land.
For starters, we could try devolving back to this rule of law which precludes federal government from punishing any crimes but piracy and counterfeiting. The puts an end to government's moral turpitude while keeping it from bankrupting us. Not a bad idea....let's devolve back to our Constitution.
Viva la devolution!
Howell W. Woltz
Born in North Carolina and educated at the University of Virginia, Wake Forest University and Caledonian University in Scotland, Howell now lives in Warsaw, Poland with his wife, Dr. Magdalena Iwaniec-Woltz writing, speaking and working for reform of the American system of justice, which now incarcerates more of its citizens than any nation on earth or in history.