Your political leanings, or pretty much anything else about you - you should read all of this and take it to heart. And you should hope to hell that something is done about it. The tragedy that our justice and penal system has become harms all of us.
The recent commutation by President Obama of eight lengthy individual sentences for drug abuse is a tiny but significant gesture, as America’s long indulgence, spiked intermittently into passionate support, for draconian hypocrisy in its failed War on Drugs yields grudgingly to the forces of reason and decency. This follows the reduction in the disparity of sentences for crack as opposed to powder cocaine from 100 to one to 18 to one. There are a number of reasons for this change, but the principal one, apart from the absurd starting imbalance, is that the cocaine-using middle-class and university white people are powder customers, and the generally poorer African Americans tend to be crack users. The first black president and attorney general in U.S. history were not impetuous in their haste to make this change, and 18 to one is still an unsupportable discrimination.
Various states, with the encouragement of a handful of more creative public-policy thinkers, such as Newt Gingrich (who despite his temperamental unsuitability for high public office is an original mind at times), have released significant numbers of nonviolent offenders because of budgetary restraints and the hideous expense of the custodial system. There is a state-supreme-court mandate in California to reduce prison overcrowding, which has reached proportions of deemed unconstitutional inhumanity. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible to discern much sense of traditional aspiration for reform, of the kind that fired the minds and ambitions of great statesmen of the past, not just ostensible radicals like William Jennings Bryan or even Eugene V. Debs, and the British Shaftesbury, Bright, and Cobden, but such great and sometimes apparently conservative officeholders as the Roosevelts, Wilson, Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George, and Churchill. They were all motivated by companion desires to preserve and strengthen the societies in which they lived, but to make them better and fairer. Little of this spirit remains in most countries, and practically none in the United States, where all politics is money: Members of the Congress represent the leading pecuniary interests in their states or districts and presidential candidates raise a billion dollars each so that mighty computer programs and advertising blitzes can fight each other for the heart and mind of an ever more disappointed, cynical, and under-served electorate.
Jim Webb, a thoughtful former Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia, lamented that the U.S. has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people as its nearest comparable, prosperous democracies (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom), and that it has 48 million designated felons. Even if the large number of those who are lumbered with distant and unstigmatizing offenses, such as disorderly conduct or a failed breathalyzer many years ago (though the American reciprocal-enforcement system is apt to keep them out of cooperating foreign countries, such as Canada), are subtracted, that still leaves about 20 percent of adult American males as felons. This is preposterous. Senator Webb said there were three possible explanations for this: Those other countries are less concerned with crime, which is bunk; or Americans are uniquely tempted by and addicted to crime, which is also bunk; or there is something fundamentally amiss in the U.S. criminal-justice system (bingo). Webb promised, in 2009, a blue-ribbon commission of inquiry and recommendation, but he did not seek reelection to the Senate, and after the usual flutter of attention, the whole idea just vanished into the ether.