Since writing American Justice?, I’ve been following some of the recent news on how costly and ineffective the American prison system really is. The cost is over $70 billion each year, and when you consider the high percentage of the population in prison and not a productive member of society, you have to consider whether there is a way to reduce these costs. These cost reductions will also benefit society by reducing the number of prisoners who can be safely released and finding other means of punishment and rehabilitation.
I have become especially concerned about these prison issues, as a result of my own wife’s arrest and jailing based on false charges and testimony. Certainly she didn’t need to be imprisoned in a mental health facility while these charges were investigated, and that led me to realize how many other prisoners are incarcerated who don’t need to be. In fact, hundreds of these prisoners have later been found innocent, after DNA testing and further witness testimony proved they were wrongly convicted.
Just how big is this problem? Huge. Approximately 1 out of every 32 Americans – about 7.2 million adults — are on probation, on parole, or in prison at any given time. This total includes 2.3 million Americans in prison, nearly one in hundred adults. In fact, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, since more Americans per capita are in prison than in other countries. Though America has 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s prisoners are here.
When you think about it, the costs of imprisonment are astronomical, since not only is there the cost of building the prisons and hiring the security personnel to run them, but most prisoners could be productive members of society if released. So there is a huge cost to society for keeping them in prison. Plus there are costs for the prisoners’ families, given the loss of a provider, which sometimes means losing a home because of not being able to afford the mortgage or rent anymore.
To put some numbers on the costs, these amount to over $70 billion annually in the U.S., with the result that state governments, which are responsible for most prisons, are increasingly strapped. Ironically, the average cost of keeping a prisoner in prison ranges from about $14,000 per inmate in some states to $60,000 in other states. And much of the money goes to privatized prisons, which make up over 10% of the corrections market and earn about $7.4 billion a year, according to a recent article on “The Economics of the American Prison System” by Thierry Godard in SmartAsset.com.
As I describe in my book, American Justice?, the costs have increased by the growing number of prisoners, because of a number of reasons, including the decline of the middle class due to the growing inequality, leading many once law-abiding citizens to turn to crime. Then, too, many individuals have turned to crime due to the breakdown of many institutions, like the educational system and the church, and they have been influenced by the images of wealth and high living presented on the Internet.
Whatever the reasons for the increase of crime and incarceration, I’d like to suggest a number of possible solutions to improve the system, which I have described in American Justice? One simple way is for judges to reduce the length of sentences. Also, judges can use alternative forms of sentencing, such as half-way houses, home detention, community service, and workfare programs for non-violent offenders. I think that helping ex-cons find meaningful jobs is an especially good way to keep them from returning to crime, since having a job gives them an incentive to stay on the straight and narrow, instead of looking to the criminals they have gotten to know in prison to help them get money from criminal activities.
In future blogs, I’ll talk about other problems I have found in the criminal justice system, and what to do about them. Want to learn more about my book? It’s available through Amazon https://www.amazon.com/American-Justice-Paul-Brakke/dp/069271068X.