U.S. exceptionalism is no new concept. It dates back to the time before the grandparents of anyone now alive were born. Politicians, whether they actually believe the U.S. is exceptional or not say that it is to prove their patriotism. It meshes with the view that America is No. 1 in the world. Unfortunately, when it comes to many issues of importance, America is nowhere near No. 1: for instance, infant survival rates, per capita income and the percentage of the populace with healthcare coverage.
In a couple of arenas, however, we do lead. We spend more on our military than the next nine to 13 nations combined, depending on how one counts. And we incarcerate people at a far higher rate than any other nation. Hardly something proud to be exceptional about.
Currently, some 2.2 million people are doing time in our nation's prisons and jails. That is a phenomenal 500 percent increase in four decades. The reason for this surge has not been a surge in crime rates. Rather it's been a change in sentencing policies. The consequences have been prison overcrowding—and an attempt to relieve it with one of the worst ideas ever to get widely adopted in the States: private prisons.
As anyone who has paid even cursory attention to this situation is aware, the huge proportion of the increase in imprisonment has been because of drug crimes, and the vast majority of those are marijuana-related. Indeed, nearly half the federal prison population have been sentenced for drug crimes—currently 98,000 inmates—with more than a fourth of that number being marijuana-related. In 1970, that 48.7 percent total incarcerated for drug crimes was just 16 percent.
As of 2011, only about 16 percent of inmates at state prisons and local jails are there for drug crimes, but the total figure is more than twice as many as are in the federal system for such offenses: 225,000 people in state prisons and more than 180,000 in local jails for drug crimes.
The grand total: Half a million Americans are doing time for drug-related crimes.