We celebrated our Independence Day last month by honoring our greatest values: freedom, democracy, equality. Nevertheless, we continue to ignore a national tragedy that undermines the good we have done in this world. America — land of the free and home of the brave — has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Arizona has the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, and according to the Arizona Department of Corrections, the highest percentage of people in Arizona prisons is there for drug offenses. We have six times more people serving sentences for drug possession in our state than for sexual assault.
This is the reality of mass incarceration in the United States today, and it is a moral and economic disaster for our country. Allowing our reign as the prison champion of the world to continue is deeply unpatriotic and flies in the face of everything we rightfully celebrated on the Fourth of July.
Independence Day has a special place in my heart. My family came to this country in the early 20th century. They fled the bloody purges and pogroms of the Russian Revolution that murdered Jews by the tens of thousands, incinerated houses of worship and destroyed millennia of cultural heritage.
My great-grandparents, Sacha and Minna, crossed the Atlantic with empty pockets and a single cardboard suitcase held together by twine. They rode in steerage, with the cows and chickens. One of their sons became sick and died on the trip, and his body had to be thrown overboard. The first sight that greeted their eyes at the end of their voyage was the Statue of Liberty, welcoming them to their new home as free people.
For Sacha and Minna and their descendants, America has been the historical and political embodiment of freedom: freedom of religion, of speech, of movement, of conscience.
Somewhere along the way, however, we built more prisons and filled them with more men and women of color. We filled them with more poor and mentally ill people and forgot what it really means to live in a free country.
We allowed our fears — of drugs, of poverty, of different ethnicities — to overcome us, and we’ve spent billions of dollars on jail cells to make us feel safer. But mass incarceration does not actually make us safe; it undermines our most cherished American values.
The freest country in the world cannot also be the most imprisoned country in the world. A nation founded on equality under the law cannot also allow severe racial disparities to plague its justice system. Thankfully, it does not have to be this way. We can insist that our legislators and elected prosecutors change their polices to reflect our greatest hopes, not our darkest fears. We can build public schools instead of private prisons.
We can rediscover the fact that America is not a jail cell, but the place people dream about when they are huddled inside of jail cells, yearning to breathe free.