“You shouldn’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” — folk saying.
There are nearly 2 million prisoners in America. No other country comes close to this level of incarceration. China has half the number of prisoners, but only 1/6th of the US rate per capita. In Western Europe, the United Kingdom comes closest to our incarceration rate, and they have around 80,000 prisoners.
We do not have this incarceration rate because we have the worst criminal class in the world. We have this incarceration rate because we are really dumb in the way we deal with crime, especially drug related crime.
We should first admit (perhaps as part of a 12 step program) that our country “is addicted to imprisonment” and it is making our country less manageable. Prison takes people who have made serious mistakes and nearly guarantees that the remainder of their lives will be ruined as well, while providing no relief to the victims. On the other hand, we do get to spend lots of tax dollars in order to maintain the criminal justice system and to keep prisoners in jail. (Just kidding. It’s the same hand.)
Jim Webb is passionate about sensibly addressing this issue through legislation. (See story in Salon.) The legislation is worth supporting, assuming that you really don’t like cutting off your nose.
Although this is not primarily an OR post, I know that Operations Research has contributed to this debate, with attention devoted to our criminal justice system. I am confident that there is much more that OR can contribute, especially if Americans choose to be sensible on this issue. (Don’t laugh. It could happen.) We are well positioned to help assess impacts of incarceration, and to figure out how to improve our policies.