Before he started singing with muppets, John Oliver showed us a lot of boxes of Cheerios. This was in the second minute of his epic rant on the state of the U.S. criminal justice system last week.
Varieties of Cheerios – from “Frosted” to “Fruity” – are the only thing that’s expanded as quickly as the number of people we throw behind bars, according to Oliver. He attributes this boom in incarceration to doing away with a mental health system, to excessively long sentences, and to a War on Drugs that has failed to impact drug use and forced millions under correctional control.
He’s right. For years we’ve been told that in order to have safe streets, we need to aggressively incarcerate large swaths of the population. But that simply isn’t true. Many people end up behind bars for reasons that have very little to do with public safety.
And that’s why we’re continuing to see the crime rate fall even as we begin to cut unnecessary incarceration. It’s happening in state after state.
This is good news: We can cut crime and protect communities while ending our overreliance on incarceration. Our new infographic shows just some of the states that have successfully lowered their crime rate and brought down their incarceration levels. It’s possible to do both. And for the health of our communities, it’s time for the rest of the states to catch up.
The trend of higher incarceration leading to higher crime shouldn’t surprise us. We know that the rapid expansion of our criminal justice system reached a fever pitch over the last 40 years. We know that far too many things can land you behind bars, things like homelessness or drug addiction or mental illness. And we know that courts have been meting out irrationally long sentences, like 50 years for stealing a $35 rack of ribs.
When we remove people from their communities for reasons that have no business being crimes, too often for decades on end, subject them to dangerous and dirty prisons, and then send them back home where they will face barrier after barrier in their attempt to find a job or housing, it hardly sets people up for success.
Not only that, but putting millions of people behind bars does real harm to families, to our communities, to our states’ budgets, to our economy, and to the hope of eradicating institutionalized racism. The list goes on.
So next time someone tries to tell you that stuffed prisons make our streets safer, send them this link. We all want to live in safe communities, and to do so we must insist that our criminal justice policies actually enhance safety and not just the illusion of it. The truth is that mass incarceration undermines safety and it’s time to make it a thing of the past.