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Some real effects of the US approach to crime - Part 4

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Friday, 15 September 2000

This is the final instalment of Kirsten Edwards' essay on crime in America. Part One discussed the definition of guilt used in US courts, Part Two examined the effects of race and drug use on incarceration rates, and Part Three questioned the impact on domestic violence victims and the mentally ill. This part searches the experience for lessons to bring home to Australia.


For the last twenty years or so polls consistently show that 80 per cent of Americans demand longer and more severe prison sentences. A political study of the past 25 years shows "control of the crime issue is a necessary, though, perhaps not sufficient, requirement for political victory in America". Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:


"my greatest complaint against democratic government as organized in the US is not, as many Europeans make out, its weakness, but rather its irresistible strength. What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny. When a man or a party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? It is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the police? They are nothing but the majority under arms. A jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to pronounce judgment; even the judges in certain states are elected by the majority. So, however iniquitous or unreasonable the measure which hurts you, you must submit"

American democracy has some features that just don’t exist in Australia. The first is voluntary voting. The segments of the community most vulnerable to long and harsh prison terms like the poor and mentally ill, and large segments of the black population, simply don’t turn up to vote. Even when they do, the votes don’t count for much and there aren’t many choices anyway. With campaign finance laws such a shambles, politicians are beholden to many special (ie ‘business’) interests and you won’t find any who think that the road to the White House or Capitol Hill will be made easier by promising to reduce prison terms. Add to this the fact that in 36 states just one felony conviction means you permanently lose the right to vote. Felonies are supposed to be serious crimes but the classification also includes joyriding or beating up a vending machine.

But even if the people who are being sent to prison can’t vote against it why does everyone else support such harsh measures? The public may not know the extent of how bad prisons are, and they may be convinced that prisons are full of genuinely bad people, but if one thing talks in the US it is bucks and prisons are extremely expensive.


In 1992, US prisons required a budgetary allocation of $31.2 billion (that’s a lot of Snickers bars).

The three-strikes laws in California have led to more state money being spent on prisons than on the state university education system (this is also true of the State where George Bush Jr’s brother Jeb Bush is Governor – Florida). What this means is that 30 per cent of qualified applicants will be turned away from Californian colleges within the next 10 years because all the money has been spent on jails. The number of inmates in the state’s prisons already exceeds students in the university system.


Prison expense and overcrowding has led to some changes. In Minnesota there is a cap on how many prisoners the state will have: sentences are allocated accordingly. Overcrowding in other states has led to the development of longstanding proposals for alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment, house arrest, electronic surveillance, community service and conferencing. These systems still have their flaws – the prisoners themselves have to pay for the expense of alternative programs so white-collar criminals tend to dominate the programs. But an optimist might see reason for some hope. Peter Neufeld of The Innocence Project believes that the population adjusts to more human responses. He points out that the French were outraged by the abolition of the guillotine but now look askance at the US for their attitude to punishment. Perhaps prison overcrowding will force the population to adjust to shorter sentences and to alternative programs.

Perhaps, but a closer examination reveals that the US may have much to gain economically from imprisoning a large segment of the population. Prison is a ‘too-hard-basket’, where unproductive members of society can be stored. As one writer puts it "Prison solves several problems in highly industrialized countries. It softens the dissonance in welfare states between the idea of care for the unemployed and the idea that the pleasure of consumption should be a result of production." Why have impoverished minorities eating up welfare and health benefits, taking drugs and causing public order problems? It is bad for tourism, lock ‘em up.

Besides, having a large population under state control can be useful. Mississippi managed to save itself from ruin at the abolition of slavery by moving its black population into incarceration in convict plantation systems. The prison farms made huge amounts of money. In fact the prison system in Mississippi turned a profit until the 1920s when convict plantation farming started to get phased out. Plantation farming is now being reintroduced in the US. Where? You guessed it - in Texas.

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A complete and updated version of these four articles can be downloaded here. (Word file, 75K)

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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