TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola, Fla. She insisted that she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt.
But the defendant and the judge fully agreed about the fairness of the sentence he imposed in federal court.
Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing, Vinson told George, your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder, but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.
Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, George, then 27, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.
She had never been accused of violence of any kind.
I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why, George said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. Sometimes I still cant believe myself it could happen in America.
Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that has both conservative and liberal social scientists scratching their heads. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and might even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.
Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about 1 in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.
But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, causing too many Americans to be locked up for too long at too great a price both economically and socially.
The criticism is resonating with some state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop the growth of the prison population. The social scientists are attracting attention partly because the drop in crime has made it a less potent issue politically, and partly because of the financial problems facing states.
State spending on corrections, after adjusting for inflation, has more than tripled in the past three decades, making it the fastest-growing budgetary cost other than Medicaid. Even though the prison population has leveled off in the past several years, the costs remain so high that states are being forced to reduce spending in other areas.
Three decades ago, California spent 10 percent of its budget on higher education and 3 percent on prisons. In recent years the prison share rose above 10 percent while the share for higher education fell below 8 percent. As university administrators in California increase tuition to cover their deficits, they complain that the state spends much more on each prisoner nearly $50,000 per year than on each student.
Many researchers agree that the rise in imprisonment produced some initial benefits, particularly in urban neighborhoods, where violence decreased significantly in the 1990s. But as sentences lengthened and the prison population kept growing, it included more and more nonviolent criminals people such as George.
Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people older than 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. About 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.
Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.
While many scholars still favor tough treatment for violent offenders, they have begun suggesting alternatives for others. James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs.
Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders so that they become a greater risk to the public than when they entered.
Some social scientists argue that the incarceration rate is now so high that the net effect is crimogenic: creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families.
Nationally, about 1 in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, 1 in 15 have a parent in prison.
The United States, with less than 5 percent of the worlds population, still has nearly a quarter of the worlds prisoners.
George, a mother of three, said she could understand the justice of sending her to prison for five years, if only to punish her for her earlier crack-selling offenses.
Im a real firm believer in karma what goes around comes around, she said. I see now how wrong it was to sell drugs to people hooked on something they couldnt control. I think, what if they took money away from their kids to buy drugs from me? I deserve to pay a price for that. But my whole life? To take me away from my kids forever?