Quick question: Does the nation have a crime problem? If you think the answer is yes, you would be in some very good—and very fearful—company. According to one recent poll, 74 percent of Americans believed that crime has gotten worse over the past year.
But that perception is not vaguely accurate. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Violent crime has been steadily declining for years, and the murder rate in the United States is about the same as it was in the 1960s. In fact, according to the FBI, some crimes like car theft have dropped over 18 percent over the past year.
What’s to explain this maddening gap? In many ways, the problem is a simple one: Our nation has painfully simplistic perceptions of crime and criminal justice. We watch far too much Breaking Bad; we spend way too much time gawking at reruns of America’s Most Wanted. And without a firm grip on what’s happening within our nation’s courthouses and prisons, we will not solve the pressing problems that do actually threaten our future.
And what’s become clear is that our nation’s biggest criminal justice challenge isn’t a surging wave of crime, as I’ve written about before. But a deeply dysfunctional justice system that is not effective, moral, or even sustainable. Our nation imprisons 1 out of every 100 adults, more than any other country in the world. One in nine young African-American males are behind bars, with more young black men going to prison each year than join the military or graduate from college. In a country that hails itself as the land of the free, we send a greater proportion of our population to jail than either Russia or China.
At same time, many of those in prison would be far better served elsewhere. Some are drug offenders who need treatment rather than jail. Others are simply mentally ill. And as our country struggles out of the greatest economic downturn in decades, we simply can not afford a penal system that eats up $70 billion a year, that forces some states to spend more on jails than higher education.
There is reason for hope; some reformers have begun to tackle this issue. But for the nation’s broken prison system—and the safety and freedom of American citizens—we must do more. Because for our country’s future, we don’t need to get tough on crime, we need to get smart.
Photo Source: Henry Hagnäs via Flickr.
This post first appeared on AOL Politics. I’ve updated and reposted here.