The United States is a country of nearly 314 million in a world of about seven billion, and yet even though America does not even make up 5 percent of the world’s population, we are responsible for incarcerating approximately 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. We, the nation of the free, the country grounded in democracy, have put a greater percentage of our population in prison than any other country in the world. Even more than Russia, a country that beats its citizens for being homosexual, and more than Rwanda, a country that creates child armies. Since 1920, the U.S. population has grown 2.8 times, while our number of inmates has increased more than 20 times. Something doesn’t line up between what America is supposed to stand for and the number of people we pay to lock up, funded through taxes.

The data that we have about the American prison system only gets more depressing the more you learn. 46 percent of those incarcerated in 2009 had a family member who had also been jailed, 25 percent are in on charges regarding drug offenses (this is the same percentage as those incarcerated for violent crimes) and 46 percent were on probation or parole at the time of their arrest. There is clearly something seriously wrong with our incarceration system since people are leaving jail and going right back; there is a vicious cycle in place that is trapping 2 million of our citizens. I can only attribute our terrible standing as the country that imprisons more of its population to one thing: the “War on Drugs” that President Richard Nixon lovingly introduced to the United States in 1971.

The “War on Drugs” came a day after President Nixon gave a press conference in which he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and announced that he intended to take a hard stance on drug use during his time in office. Before the year Nixon gave his speech, incarcerated Americans as a percentage of population had hovered at 0.1 percent since 1920. That number has steadily risen to 0.7 percent since then. Could there be a correlation there? In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report on the War on Drugs that stated that if the “war” were ended, the United States would save an estimated 41.3 billion dollars annually on enforcement and incarceration costs alone. I think that this supports my theory about Republican presidents declaring wars that drive our country into the depths of hell … but maybe that’s all just coincidental…

While those arrested on drug charges do include users and sellers of hard drugs, 52 percent of all drug arrests made in 2010 were for marijuana. 50 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana; man, we are slowly learning aren’t we? But our politicians aren’t listening, or maybe they are and they’re choosing to ignore us. I’m not appealing to you as a stoner college kid; I’m coming to you as someone who is about to enter the world of adulthood and wants to know why the hell her taxes are going to be divvied in percentages that will favor California’s prisons more than our colleges.

Rather than approaching the detrimental problem of serious drug use by throwing 18-25 year olds with an ounce of marijuana on them into prison, why don’t we attack the problem head-on by acknowledging our national problems of poverty, racial discrimination, mental illness and all other issues our country faces? How exactly will sending a 20-year-old such as myself to jail on charges of possession improve our society? Better yet, how will someone with a serious addiction to meth get helped when he or she is locked up?

Over half of the women currently in United States prisons stated that they were physically or sexually abused in the past (before incarceration) versus 16.7 percent of women in America who have never been jailed that reported the same. In 2012, studies found that 18.9 percent of Americans aged 18-25 were dealing with substance dependence or abuse, 15 percent of our citizens were in poverty, and one in 45 American children were homeless. Simply hiking up our incarceration rates lets us ignorantly overlook the real issues at hand.

Prison reform needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. While we are making improvements by slowly legalizing marijuana across the country, peoples’ lives are being permanently and negatively affected, and we as taxpaying citizens are paying for it. Non-violent crimes should not see the same jail-time as assault with a deadly weapon or burglary. We should be focusing on the rehabilitation of our citizens, improving life on the streets before we send our future generations into a cell, and pushing for the legalization and regulation of substances that can drastically improve our economy.

Mckinley Krongaus thinks that orange will never be the new black.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, February 5, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are primarily submitted by students.