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Are Americans Just Mean and Stupid?

On page one of today’s San Francisco Chronicle, above the fold, is another article concerning California’s prisons. If I did the math right, California’s prisons hold 7.2% of the nation’s prisoners, which currently number about 2.29 million. (Today, with more than two-and-a-quarter million prisoners, the United States has the world’s highest documented incarceration rate.Even with its supposedly-high level of political oppression, China is number two with only 1.5 million. The United States holds just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.)

Why so much?

The reason can pretty much be summed up by California Attorney General Jerry Brown’s quote in the Chronicle story. Brown said the court “does not recognize the imperatives of public safety.” (San Francisco Chronicle (February 10, 2009) p. A16, col. 2.)

Maybe Brown is just practicing his debating skills and making a stab at doing the job of showing the California public that he can be “tough on crime.” The statement is otherwise fairly idiotic. If anyone has shown a lack of recognition of the “imperatives of public safety,” it’s California and its citizens.

Public safety, among other things, means that we have safe roads on which to drive, safe schools where our children actually learn things and a robust system that protects and improves the health of our citizens. We pretty much have none of these things because California is verging on bankruptcy.

Ironically, the reason California is verging on bankruptcy is connected with our prisons problem. California’s “get-tough” stance on crime has increased our prison population by 82 percent over the last 20 years. During the same time, the state’s population has increased by only about 50 percent. Thanks to “Three Strikes,” California’s legislature simply can’t get a budget past home plate.

So, as I said, the basis of our problem is pretty much summed up with Brown’s quote: Californians’ obsessive zero tolerance, lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality, rather than actually considering whether a parolee who comes home 15 minutes after curfew requires another 8 months in prison, or whether someone who steals a few videotapes or three golf clubs should be put away for life, makes it impossible for us to determine what is necessary to ensure public safety.

Worse yet, it makes us unable to afford public safety.

It makes others wonder: “Are Americans completely devoid of any kind of common sense?” Or “are Americans just mean and stupid?”