I came across this article on prison reform over at Comrade Kevin's site. In the following excerpt, the Sentator Jim Webb compares Japan and the U.S. The differences are startling:
We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. Twenty-five years ago, I went to Japan on assignment for PARADE to write a story on that country's prison system. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding--and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan's prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million. The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision," which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.
The Senator points out that much of the prison population is there for petty offenses:
Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales. Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses. And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans--who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population--accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.
I think a good argument can be made for the complete legalization of drugs, allowing law enforcement to focus on the few people who are truly violent and need to be removed from society.