BY CECIL ACUFF
Does America joyously lead the world in something? Yes, but ’tis not a joy, but the sad fact that the United States of America is a leader in incarceration. There are about 2.3 million people behind bars – one of every 100 citizens.
The prison population has more than doubled over the past 15 years. America has several times the number in jails of other countries: four times Israel, six times Canada or China, eight times Germany, and 13 times more than Japan.
America, with a bit more than 4% of the world’s population, accounts for one-fourth of the world’s prisons and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined. Most all the other high per capita prisons rates are in the developing nations.
The escalating cost of the criminal justice system is an important factor in the fiscal challenges around the nation. There are 140,000 inmates in California – each one costs $50,000 yearly. The state spends more on prisons than on higher education. The prisons are so over-crowded that as many as 54 persons must share a single bathroom.
America’s prison explosion isn’t due to an increase in crime; violent crimes are down across the country. Latest FBI figures show that murder, rape, and robberies have fallen to a half-century low. But America’s number of inmates still remains higher than in most industrialized countries.
There are many theories for this: Police work is more efficient in potentially high-crime metropolitan areas. Even more access to abortions has reduced the number of unwanted children who would be more likely to commit crimes.
A criminologist noted that long prison terms come at a clear cost. Those who finally finish their terms can expect a 40% decrease in annual earnings And young people who live with a parent who has done time do less well in school and are more prone themselves to become criminals.
Now, address the continued “deindustrialization” of America. A tragic fact: The U.S. has lost 42,000 factories since 2001. In 2008, 1.2 billion cell phones were sold in the world – none were made in the USA. The United States has lost 5.5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.
All these idle persons bring cliches to mind: “Idle brains are the devil’s workshop.” “Idleness is the root of all evil.” St. Matthew: “Why stand ye here all day idle?” And Ben Franklin said, “Idleness and pride tax with a heavier hand than Kings and Parliaments.”
In America today consumption is 70% of the Gross Domestic Product; of this, over half is spent on services.
In 2001, the U.S. ranked fourth worldwide in per capita broadband Internet use. Today it ranks 15th. Manufacturing in the computer industry is actually lower in 2010 than it was in 1975. The U.S. spends about $3.90 on Chinese goods for every $1 the Chinese spend on American goods. One economist predicts that the Chinese economy will be three times larger than America’s by 2040.
Cullen Bryant wrote a 2007 book, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and The Fate of America. The Romans loved technology and its applications, although they were not as creative as Americans. The military was the one area where the Romans excelled and created, which brings lopsided development, and about which America should become concerned and warned.
Rome and America share a basic problem: military capabilities are not sufficient to successfully do the job required. And to sustain efforts over a long period of time.
Rome didn’t have enough people, America can’t recruit enough military personnel, so both went to the private sector to supplement their forces. The Roman army finally consisted almost entirely hired soldiers. Is the U.S. in a trend to do the same?
America has lowered standards in order to attract enough women and men needed. The Romans found themselves over-extended just trying to keep its domain stable. America is over-extended trying to reach every dark corner of the world. There are more than 770 U.S. military bases overseas, and no exact data could be found as to the number of embassies, led, of course, by the 104-acre Vatican size, U.S. Embassy in Iraq. And the U.S. is locked in as the keeper-of-the-peace in the Middle East.
Author Murphy also worries about America going down Rome’s path of disrespect with the growing inequality of wealth and income. Late studies show that the income gap between an average CEO and the average production worker is more than 400-1, up from 200-1 a decade ago. And Murphy probably used 2006 figures. The ratio is surely higher today.
America has a long way to go to catch Rome, but a social, cultural and harmful habit can be insidious, growing ever so slowly, as the Kudzu plant, until it engulfs every thing and everybody.
When will Americans awaken? Does America have the political willpower? Will the U.S. incarceration rate be on next year’s ballot? No. How do all the politicians get elected? Maybe a look in a mirror would answer that, yes? Then, when will those at the top of America’s corporations start a correctional program to lower the ratio?
The song, “Ain’t we got fun? The rich get richer, and the poor get babies.”
And, in today’s world, the majority of players at the casinos are those who cannot afford to lose. And the rich get richer, and it’s one sad merry-go-round, and so on, and so forth …
Joyfully, it is a fact of the human condition: poor people are, by and large, happier than the rich.
– Cecil Acuff lives in Perkins, OK and is an occasional contributor to The Oklahoma Observer