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We Americans sure love our prisons

Monday, August 27, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

The United States of America is the greatest country in the world. We have no need to look to other, lesser nations for ideas or inspiration. Thus we can freely ignore what the rest of the world embraces — the metric system, universal health care, gun control, the ability to speak several languages — and certainly don’t need to consider the possibility that other countries do certain things better than we do.

Of the above paragraph, I believe only the first sentence — call it force of habit, or wishfulness, or die hard patriotism. The rest describes a general tone that, while seldom stated, is commonly held, at least over the past 50 years. After running much of the 20th century and our victory in World War II, we became entrenched in a “We’re No. 1!” attitude that lingers even as our superiority declines. Perhaps because it declines. We have to insist we’re the best, because in our secret hearts we’re not so sure anymore.

Last week, a Norwegian judge sentenced mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers, in a horrific, carefully planned political hate rampage in July 2011, to 21 years in prison, the harshest punishment in a nation that has no life sentence, “ending a case that thoroughly tested this gentle country’s collective commitment to values like tolerance, nonviolence and merciful justice,” in the words of the New York Times.

Nobody would use those words to describe the United States. We have a passionate belief in harsh justice; the harshest anywhere, in fact. The U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world — 743 people are in jail for every 100,000 Americans, or .7 percent of the population at any given time.

In China, the rate is 111 per 100,000. In Norway, it’s 73 per 100,000, a policy that its citizens support, even in the case of such a smug, calculating terrorist as Breivik. Make no mistake ­— Norwegians hate Breivik and wish the cops had shot him. But they also are overwhelmingly satisfied with the outcome of his trial. Only 4 percent of Norwegians in a poll Friday disagreed with Breivik’s sentence, according to the Norway Post — 85 percent support the court’s ruling.

So what is it about Americans? We obviously really like putting people in jail — with 4 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

The question is: why? Race has to be a factor. More than 60 percent of American prisoners are black or Hispanic, double their presence in the population, and the criminal justice system operates differently for law-breakers who are white and have resources than those who are of color and don’t.

The failed war against drugs also is key. It’s ironic that when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle recently said that Ronald Reagan deserves “a special place in hell” for ramping up the war on drugs, debate immediately centered on the supposed disrespect to Reagan’s cherished memory, with scant attention to Preckwinkle’s actual point: that our national mania against drugs has clogged the prisons while not actually addressing the drug problem. The number of federal prisoners on drug offenses has multiplied by 12 since Reagan took office.

It’s as if we don’t want to think about it, even during an election year. Not when there are emotional social issues to play tug-of-war over. Maybe that’s good, because our politicians tend to make the situation worse. Our criminal justice system is crisscrossed with all sorts of get-tough laws inflicted by showboating politicians — we not only have more prisoners but our sentences are longer than anyplace else on earth. Mandatory minimum sentences, though long decried, still tie judges’ hands and ship drug offenders away for decades. Ludicrous “three-strikes” laws were intended to jail hardened criminals. But felons can and do receive 25-year-sentences — longer than Breivik got for murdering 77 people — for shoplifting a candy bar. California burglar Norman Williams got a life sentence for taking a jack from a tow truck.

Politicians are not the only ones to blame. We love to get tough on crime. The California three-strikes law passed with 72 percent of the vote. Twenty-five other states have three-strikes laws. We blink at Norway, uncomprehending — not really trying to understand. I have to admit, I’d be happy were Breivik hung. I was glad Timothy McVeigh was executed. Killing feels like justice to us; so does putting people away forever.

The chance of America changing its outlook here are small. We are a frightened country — with some 270 million guns in 40 percent of the U.S. households, mostly for “protection.” We want criminals to suffer, and aren’t willing to think about the cost of that mindset. That they do things differently in Norway — well then, Norwegians must be strange. The whole world is strange. Only we are normal. Only we do things the right way — the only way — they must be done.

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