Reasons Not To Be Proud Of U.S.

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 05, 2008
| Del.icio.us

My conservative colleagues in the scribbling trade have been heaping opprobrium of late on Michelle Obama. Why? For saying that, as an American, she’s had trouble finding much of which to be proud.

I’m sure the articulate, straightforward Mrs. Obama exaggerated her disappointment at the direction of recent American history.

At least I thought I was sure until, late last week, two articles in the morning paper sent me spiraling into despair myself.

The front page headline on the first read: “1 of every 99 adults in U.S. behind bars.” That’s right - on Jan. 1, 2008, 2,319,258 of our fellow Americans were in city or county jails or state or federal prisons. (A disproportionate number of which, by the way, are African Americans, as is Mrs. Obama.)

The United States may not have the soundest currency in the world, its reputation in the global community may be at low ebb, and our good-paying jobs all over the planet; but according to the Pew Center on the States, in one category we can still claim preeminence: The United States of America, “sweet land of liberty,” is the world’s biggest, baddest incarcerator.


Nobody, but nobody, imprisons their fellow citizens as often as we. We imprison them for victimless drug crimes, for three convictions, for ... well, for just about everything that passes for crime.

Why? So that the shaky-kneed politicians who write the laws that put all these folks in jail will not be accused in some future campaign of being “soft on crime.” Since the Reagan revolution of 1980, you’ve gotta be tough on crime in this country - even if the crime you’re tough on isn’t much of a crime.

So what has this toughness meant? According to the Pew Center report, apparently nothing on “recidivism or overall crime,” but on state budgets, plenty.

Four of the 50 states spend more money on corrections than they do on higher education; the national average of the states is 6.8 percent of general fund revenues.

Hawaii can be proud in that regard; we rank third from the bottom in the annual percentage we spend on imprisoning people. We may save by not building prisons in Hawaii (the sighting of which is a political hot potato two not-very-courageous governors - Mr. Cayetano and Ms. Lingle - have chosen to keep in the air, or in some god-forsaken Mainland state).

But we’ve paid another price, of course: the jerking of those prisoners from their families, the principal motivation for their working to rehabilitate themselves and re-enter society as productive citizens.

The second dreaded headline lay buried on Page B2: “Bill to ban .50-caliber rifles fails in House.” Last week the State House Judiciary Committee failed to achieve a quorum to vote on a bill to ban .50-caliber Browning machine gun rifles and cartridges.


Got that? Those valiant legislators failed to show up to vote on a priority bill on the Honolulu Police Department’s legislative agenda. I mean ... well, why should a lawmaker heed the advice of the police when, in the process, said lawmaker might anger the membership of the local chapter of the National Rifle Association? We all know that group. Its brilliant leadership argues that, instead of stricter gun legislation in response to the massacre at Virginia Tech, the professors and students should be armed. That’s right, dizzy old profs like me and testosterone-laden fraternity boys should all be packin’ heat.

And our legislators - our shaky-kneed legislators - quail before the logic of and the possible election-year targeting by the NRAers.

Who were these not-so-courageous reps? Democrats Cindy Evans, Ken Ito, Angus McKelvey, Alex Sonson, Joe Souki, Clift Tsuji and Kyle Yamashita - and Republicans Barbara Marumoto, Kymberly Pine and Cynthia Thielen.

They didn’t even show up. Didn’t even show up.

Come to think of it, maybe Michelle Obama wasn’t exaggerating.

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