Why the dramatic increase? Because our criminal justice system is more interested in capturing people in the "war on drugs" than in helping them.
More than half of inmates in federal prison today have been convicted of drug crimes. Of the 1.6 million Americans arrested in 2009 on drug charges, 80 percent were for simple drug possession.
This isn't just a national problem. From 1990 to 2010, Utah's population grew by about 30 percent, but our prison population increased almost 300 percent.
According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, arresting and incarcerating people fills prisons and destroys lives but does not reduce the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations. And the lives affected are usually from minority populations and the poor.
"This war on drugs is almost entirely being fought in Latino and African American communities," says professor Jose Luis Morin, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York. Black men go to prison for drug convictions at 13 times the rate of white men. The war on drugs, Morin says, is "the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population of Latinos in prisons around the United States."
Journalist Bruce Western, of "The Nation," commented, "Drugs are intensively criminalized among the poor but largely unregulated among the rich. The pot, coke and ecstasy that enliven college dorms, soothe the middle-class time bind and ignite the octane of capitalism on Wall Street are unimpeded by the street sweep, the prison cell and the parole-mandated urine tests that are routine in poor neighborhoods."
Our American identity is judged not on how we treat the rich and white, but how we treat the least among us.
We should devote our resources to helping our neighbors and fellow citizens by treating societal diseases among them homelessness, unemployment, hopelessness, lack of education, lack of health care, lack of family and, above all, poverty instead of wasting resources on punishing individuals for the tragic symptom of drug addiction.
We must challenge laws that disproportionately affect our black and brown and poor neighbors in every ballot box and every courtroom until we, as the Rev. King put it, "shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."
Our great nation may have been emancipated from slavery, but there is a fierce urgency requiring emancipation from the failed drug war.
We must stand up for freedom together, because unless we lock everyone in prison, those dreamers behind prison walls will be our neighbors.
How will we help our neighbors? By realizing that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot let them walk or dream alone.
Jesse Nix is president of the Utah Minority Bar Association and a public defender with the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association.