Even before the proposed 'three strikes' legislation takes effect, Americans already are four times more likely to spend time behind bars than Britons. And even South Africa, the nearest rival in incar ceration, jails fewer of its citizens than the US - a black man living in New York or Los Angeles is five times more likely to go to prison than one from Johannesburg. In the last 20 years the prison pop ulation in the US has quintupled to 1.4 million.
Critics of the plan for 'three strikes and you're out', which echoes baseball terminology, point out that tougher sentencing would not have prevented the most notorious killings of last year, such as the massacre on the Long Island Railway, or the killing of tourists in Florida. The average age of a criminal convicted of robbery or burglary is 17, and a 'three-time loser' will already be near the end of his criminal career.
But crime has overtaken the economy as the main concern of voters, according to opinion polls, and a large majority of Americans firmly believe criminals are coddled and allowed to roam the streets by liberal judges and nave parole officers. This ensures that federal and state governments will add to or expand the 4,000 existing prisons they already run.
They will need to act fast. In California a survey shows the new state law giving life sentences to 'three-time losers' will increase the state's prison population by 225,000 over the following
Much of the increase in the last decade resulted from 'The War On Drugs' launched by Ronald Reagan and continued by George Bush in the Eighties. In federal prisons the proportion of drug offenders doubled to 53 per cent of the total in the 10 years to 1991. Possession of 5 grams (nearly 2 ounces) of crack cocaine means a mandatory prison sentence of five years, even for a first offender.
Paradoxically, the War on Drugs may have added to the violence. It did not disrupt the drug trade. In spite of heavily publicised busts, the wholesale price of 1kg of pure cocaine has stayed steady at dollars 11,000 ( pounds 7,500) for the last five years. But mandatory life sentences for drug dealers means they have little to lose by killing potential witnesses and informers. Between a quarter and a half of the 23,000 murders in the US last year are believed to be drug related.
The War on Drugs disproportionately affects blacks. Although only 12 per cent of the population, they make up half of prison inmates. Marc Mauer, an assistant director of the Sentencing Project, and a critic of prison expansion, says nearly one in four black males in their twenties 'is under some form of supervision - prison, jail, probation or parole'.
A Delaware prosecutor explains poor blacks and Hispanics are prosecuted because they conduct their business on the street. 'Those cases are easy pickings for the police,' he said. 'The problem of the underprivileged is that they are just too visible.'
It is not that America is be coming a more dangerous place to live. Justice Department studies show crimes of violence have gone down. But this is not how ordinary Americans perceive it. Half of those in a Times-Mirror poll this week say they worry about being the victim of a crime, compared to 36 per cent in 1988. Senator Joe Biden, describing the mood in the Senate, said: 'If anybody proposed barbed-wiring the ankles of anyone who jaywalks, I think it would pass.'
Crime is the staple of local television news and 'real life' documentaries, which create a general atmosphere of menace. In fact, random killings are uncommon. Most victims are known to the murderer and both are usually from the same community. Of the 1,569 people murdered in the last five years in New Orleans - one of the most violent cities in the country - only 38 were white.
Draconian legislation is probably unstoppable now - regardless of its effectiveness - because President Clinton is trying to take the law-and-order card away from the Republicans. From Richard Nixon's victory in 1968 to George Bush's success in highlighting the paroled black rapist, Willie Horton, in 1988, Republicans have convinced voters they are tougher on crime than Democrats. By supporting gun-control and the 'three strikes' law, Mr Clinton thinks he can take the issue away from them.
Beneficiaries of mandatory sentencing and the 'three strikes' law include prison construction companies, prosecutors and defence lawyers. In Washington, the one state which already has a 'three strikes' law in operation, police say offenders increasingly believe they have nothing to lose, and open fire on the officers trying to arrest them.
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