Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's unofficial pardon of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was a fleeting story highlighting a durable problem.

According to owner Jeffrey Lurie, Obama phoned to praise the Eagles for giving Vick a "second chance." "He said," according to Lurie, "'It's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.'"

That field is more level when trod by millionaire athletes, particularly those who throw 20 touchdowns in a season. But though Vick is not representative, he is symbolic.

During the last few decades, America has engaged in a massive experiment in routine imprisonment. From 1975 to 1999, by one estimate, the criminal justice system grew five times more punitive. A nation with 5 percent of the world's population now has about a quarter of the world's prison population -- well over 2 million people.

It has had the intended effect. At least a portion of the sharp reduction in violent crime during the 1990s can be traced to the isolation of habitual offenders for longer periods. (The increased size and skill of police forces and the subsiding of the crack cocaine epidemic also played roles.)

But other consequences were unintended -- the growth in single-parent households, in the number of children with one or both parents in prison, in the universality of the incarceration among some groups, particularly poorly educated African-American and Hispanic men. The incarceration rate for African-American male high school dropouts is nearly 50 times the national average. And the inevitable result of mass imprisonment is mass return. About 700,000 former inmates come back to communities each year, with considerably dimmer prospects than Michael Vick.

Criminal justice experts argue about the effect of race and class on rates of incarceration. But one racially charged fact is clear enough: If such incarceration rates prevailed among middle-class youth, it would be a crisis rather than a curiosity.

The most effective responses are also the most daunting. Crime prevention, in the long run, is youth development. The alternative to cultivating the next generation is fearing it. Children, as one would expect, do better in life when they have not been poisoned by lead paint, abandoned by parents or betrayed by failed schools. There is promise in encouraging preschool attendance, providing mentors for the fatherless, demanding competent teachers, rewarding high school completion and making street gangs less attractive.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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