Darwin’s Nightmare: The Unintended Consequences Of Hyper-Incarceration, by Brian Moran, Esq.
I recently traveled to Kenya to visit my daughter. She works for an NGO that runs a high school for girls in Muhuru, a rural fishing village alongside Lake Victoria. At one point, we stopped for lunch at a lakeside restaurant. Our local host proudly suggested we try the local perch.
The lunch brought to mind the Oscar-nominated documentary film from 2006, Darwin’s Nightmare. The movie chronicled the ironic unintended consequences brought about by the introduction of the Nile perch to Lake Victoria about 50 years ago. The Nile perch was introduced in an attempt to replenish the over-fished waters. Such over-fishing threatened the extinction of hundreds of indigenous species. The Nile perch was an oily-fleshed fish that reached six-feet in length.
The Nile perch proved to be a voracious predator. It fed upon not only hundreds of endemic species of fish, but also its own young. It quickly came to dominate Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water lake. The Nile perch destroyed an ancient and diverse eco-system, wiping out most of the native fish species. The World Conservation Union deemed the Nile perch one of the planet’s 100 “worst invasive alien species”.
The Nile perch’s dominance caused havoc not only with the eco-systems of the lake, but also the local economy and population. The Nile perch were processed into frozen fillets that were shipped to Europe and Japan, leaving the locals without the supply of fish upon which they historically had relied. Locals were forced to feed on the festering carcasses of gulleted perch. The economic spoils from the exporting of Nile perch were enjoyed by a scant few. Notwithstanding an abundant supply of Nile perch, Kenya and Tanzania have experienced famine and poverty. It has been estimated that the number of people outside Africa who are fed daily with exported Nile perch is of the same magnitude as those who starved to death during the famine in Tanzania. Half the children living around Lake Victoria are considered malnourished.
Just as the effort to replenish the supply of fish in Lake Victoria had disastrous unintended consequences, so too has our country’s forty year war on crime. In our effort to make our streets safe once again and rid our communities of violent criminals, we failed to foresee that such efforts might upset the economic and social balance within our communities, particularly our cities.
The unintended consequences of our voracious war on crime are profound. They include:
- a corrections system that incarcerates for prolonged periods of time not only violent offenders, but thousands and thousands of non-violent drug offenders.
- a system where the vast majority of those arrested for drug offenses do not have a history of violence or significant selling activity;
- a system where, during the 1990s, arrests for marijuana possession accounted for nearly 80% of drug arrests;
- a system that largely takes away discretion from sentencing, probation and parole decisions, resulting in mandatory imprisonment or re-incarceration (irrespective of the individual circumstances of the offense, the absence of violence, the lack of victims or the impact on offenders’ families);
- a system that inhibits the use of time off for good behavior and early release;
- a system that releases a high percentage of offenders at the end of their sentence, at which point they are no longer subject to supervision;
- a system that places almost insurmountable obstacles on ex-offenders, such as deprivation of public housing, welfare, forfeiture of one’s driver’s license and disqualification from educational grants, thereby almost guaranteeing their return to prison;
- a system that fails to adequately treat offenders’ addictions and mental health conditions;
- a system that effectuates a revolving prison door, through which about two-thirds of offenders released in Connecticut spin and find themselves back in prison within three years, about 20% above the national average;
- a system that takes mothers and fathers, the principal breadwinners in their families — most of whom are non-violent and are themselves the victims of abuse and violent crimes — from their children, families and communities for lengthy periods of time;
- a system that places a huge financial strain, both directly and indirectly, on our state and local budgets;
- a system that costs taxpayers in the State of Connecticut more than $1 billion and $51,000 per bed annually, the third highest rate in the Unites States;
- a system that exacerbates the minority academic achievement gap;
- a system that perpetuates the cycle of poverty in our inner cities;
- a system that has driven the number of Americans in prison from 160 for every 100,000 citizens in 1972 to about 760 per 100,000 today, the highest rate in the world;
- a system where 1 in every 48 working men in the United States and one in eleven black adults is now under the control of the corrections system (i.e., in jail, on probation or on parole), as compared with 1 in 156 in 1980;
- a system where 1 in 3 black males in the United States will at some point serve time in prison, if current trends continue;
- a system where, in certain U.S. cities, more than half of young adult black males are currently under correctional supervision;
- a system where Blacks and Hispanic, who make up 24% of Connecticut’s population, constitute 66% of its inmates;
- a system where the United States has 4.6% of the world’s population, but 22.4% of its inmates;
- a system where the United States during the 1990s built a new prison every two weeks;
- a system where continued mass incarceration not only yields diminishing returns relative to public safety, but arguably generates more criminal behavior;
A viable alternative exists. By right-sizing our prisons, we can lower costs, reduce recidivism, increase public safety and improve upon rehabilitation. Other states, both blue and red states, have successfully right-sized their prisons and invested the cost-savings in drug treatment, mental health services, post-release support programs and diversionary alternatives to incarceration. In so doing, they have saved millions and improved public safety.
In view of the fact that Connecticut, in terms of its crime rate, is the safest it has been in 44 years, it is time to reform our system. Our failure to act will subject yet another generation of our youth to the ironic nightmarish consequences of our forty-year war on crime.
Brian E. Moran of is an attorney with Robinson + Cole in Stamford. He is the Lead Writer and an Editorial Board Member of “The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked The American Dream.” Copies can be ordered at amazon.com.