In March, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the U.S. prison population had increased yet again, by 4.4 percent in 1998, to a new high of 1.8 million. Predictably, alarms started ringing. One in 150 Americans—and worse, one in 12 black Americans—now were behind bars, the New York Times grimly observed. Britain's normally staid Economist lapsed into hysterical hyperbole: "The scale of imprisonment in America is now unmatched in any democracy, and is greater than even most totalitarian governments have ever attempted."
The villain here, incarceration critics charge, is America's benighted drug laws. Nearly 60 percent of federal prisoners and 22 percent of state prisoners are drug offenders, the Times pointed out. Since many are nonviolent, wouldn't it be more rational to release them into drug treatment or community service programs, the Times demanded. Many of these poor folks need treatment, not punishment.
Bunk. Many of these prisoners may be nonviolent, but almost all have been jailed for selling significant quantities of drugs or have committed multiple offences. Few or none are merely hapless recreational pot-smokers. The crimes of these drug pushers are not victimless, even if they are nonviolent: the victim is public order, for these are precisely the quality-of-life criminals whose activities make public spaces and entire neighborhoods disorderly and threatening, leading to the growth of serious crime. Releasing them from jail by the thousands will almost certainly turn such places as Washington Square Park and parts of Central Park into squalid drug supermarkets once again.
It's theoretically conceivable that some few of these offenders sold narcotics to support their own habit, and arguably they might benefit from such diversionary programs as drug court—though this program is more appropriate for people charged with petty drug possession, not for the serious dealers who fill our prisons. But most dealers aren't in business to support their habits; rather, as Theodore Dalrymple has argued in these pages, they are habitual criminals for whom drug selling is only part of a lawless way of life. Even if they stop selling drugs, they'd be unlikely to become upright and productive citizens. It's naïve to think that drug treatment or community service would straighten them out.