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March 10, 2008 -- Metrowest Daily News (MA)

Column: Treating Medical Problems With Incarceration

ByPaul F. Campos, law professor at the University of Colorado

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If you knew nothing about Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama other than that Clinton is a 60-year-old white woman and Obama is a 46-year-old black man, you could still calculate the odds that each was in prison.

It won't come as any surprise that someone like Obama is, in this crude comparison, more likely to be found behind bars than someone like Clinton.

What should shock people is how much more likely we are to incarcerate a 46-year-old black man than a 60-year-old white woman.

Here's one way of picturing the answer: During football games, the University of Michigan's stadium hosts about 111,000 people. If you filled the place with randomly selected 60-year-old white women, around 10 of them would turn out to be prison inmates.

If you did the same with 46-year-old black men, about 5,500 would be current residents of our prisons and jails.

In other words, if we took into account only race, gender and age, Obama's chances of being in prison would be 550 times higher than Clinton's.

Here's a good question for a presidential debate: "Do you think 46-year-old black men are 550 times more likely to deserve to be in prison than 60-year-old white women?"

I derived these statistics from a report published by the Pew Center last week. The report got a lot of media attention when it revealed that one out of every 100 American adults is in prison.

That's startling enough, but not nearly as shocking as the fact that more than 10 percent of black men between the ages of 20 and 40 are incarcerated.

But of course other factors also play a powerful role in determining whom we choose to lock up and for how long. The most important of these is socioeconomic class. Poor people go to prison, while people with money, with rare exceptions, don't.

The extent to which we ignore that reality is highlighted by a glaring omission in the Pew Center's otherwise excellent analysis: There literally isn't a word in it about poverty.

One would never guess, from reading the report, that a key factor in determining whether you go to prison and for how long is if you use powder cocaine rather than crack, or if you rob the U.S. Treasury instead of a gas station, or if you are represented by a team of private lawyers rather than a single overworked public defender.

I assume the report's failure to mention such matters involves a strategic silence. It's hard enough to get Americans to focus on the amazing explosion in the size of our prisons (we have 400 percent more people behind bars than in 1980) without upsetting people further by pointing to the role that class bias plays in these developments.

We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the prison population continues to grow, despite a plunge in crime rates over the past 15 years.

Nearly 1 million Americans are behind bars for non-violent crimes -- many of which are "crimes" only because of what political scientist Scott Lemieux has labeled "the war on (some people who use some) drugs."

The report does mention some encouraging developments. Even Texas, where voters have had an almost unlimited appetite for paying taxes to build and staff more prisons, is finding the costs of locking people up so high that it's beginning to experiment with alternatives to prison.

The most rational alternative would be to stop treating drug use as a criminal offense. A small minority of users of mind-altering substances become addicted to those substances.

They should be able to get medical help for what ought to be considered a medical problem, instead of one of the main justifications for keeping 2.3 million Americans behind bars.

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