The United States spends $60 billion each year on incarceration and has the highest incarceration rate in the world (due more to the length of sentences than the number of individuals incarcerated each year), as this New York Times article details. The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close to the U.S.’s rate is Russia, with others having much lower rates (1/5 the U.S.’s rate or lower). The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of its prisoners, with 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation. China is a distant second with 1.6 million people in prison.
And as this NAACP report points out, there’s a lot more to worry about:
– The majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are people of color, people with mental health issues and drug addiction, people with low levels of educational attainment, and people with a history of unemployment or underemployment. (According to a 2008 study, 1 in 100 U.S. adults of any age and 1 in 9 black men ages 20-34 are in prison).
– The nation’s reliance on incarceration to respond to social and behavioral health issues is evidenced by the large numbers of people who are incarcerated for drug offences – nearly a quarter of all those incarcerated. (And as mentioned here, in 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1200%.)
– During the last two decades, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education. (And according to a Pew report, total state spending on corrections, the bulk of which is spent on prisons, quadrupled during the past 20 years, making it the second fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid.)
Even worse – much of what we do in terms of incarceration does not seem to be preventing crime, much less helping people escape the various vicious cycles that can lead to things like poverty, crime, substance abuse, poor education, poor health, etc. This can be seen not only in the recidivism rates mentioned above (with about 1 out of 4 American offenders ending up right back in prison within three years of release), but also limited drug offender effects, negative impacts on family and community, and other issues detailed in this Sentencing Project report. Moreover, as the report goes on to say, “a variety of research demonstrates that investments in drug treatment, interventions with at-risk families, and school completion programs are more cost-effective than expanded incarceration as crime control measures.”
The call is echoed in editorials such as this one, written to describe a consensus reached in a Pennsylvania conference among prosecutors and defenders, victim advocates, prison reformers, and parole officers and judges. The consensus: the need for a change in the justice paradigm, from a system focused primarily on punishment to one emphasizing restorative practices. The editorial goes on to highlight a number of public health strategies as promising alternatives including therapies that address addictive behaviors and mental and emotional disorders.
And there have also been repeated calls to take some of the billions of dollars we spend on incarceration and put it toward education, one of the more recent calls coming from Gaye Tuchman, a University of Connecticut sociology professor, in one of this week’s New York Times Room for Debate articles about Rick Perry’s “plan” for a $10,000 B.A. degree – “New money for education has to come from somewhere,” Tuchman writes. “Why not a new kind of retrenchment: Cut back on imprisonment for some victimless crimes — like marijuana possession — and use the money for higher education. As The New York Times reported in February, arrests for marijuana use have been skyrocketing in New York City alone. Better to educate people than lock them up.”
And indeed better to educate and support high risk youth than lock them up. Let’s target youth in high risk communities (a la “hot spotters”) for intensive tutoring and mentoring support, provision of safe spaces, and more, providing them with role models and people and places to turn to when in distress or in need of help accessing various resources.
John F. Kennedy once said “children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future” – let’s invest in this resource and nurture this hope, preventing our children from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.