Imprisoning People In The USA
Our criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul starting with prisons and jails.
A man in a southern state has been sentenced to a year in jail. One year. His alleged crime was smoking weed while camping in a wilderness area. Yes, he was smoking marijuana. Not selling it, not driving while under the influence, not doing anything but fishing on a riverbank with a buddy and smoking a joint. He might be a really hardened criminal who also didn’t have a fishing license.
Not only is the punishment overly harsh for the “crime,” but it’s disastrous in terms of cost versus benefit to taxpayers. His 365-day incarceration for smoking that joint will cost taxpayers, (conservatively) $20,000 to $30,000.* His case is far from unique. In fact, it’s common for people to get long sentences for simply possessing marijuana since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced May, 2017, that prosecutors should go back to the practices of the 1980’s and 1990’s “War on Drugs” including long imprisonments for nonviolent crimes involving drugs. Even possession of a small amount of marijuana can carry a ridiculously long prison sentence.
The United States is home to only 5% of the world population, but it has 20% of the total number of people incarcerated worldwide.*(BJS) (DER) The United States has more of its population locked up in prisons and jails than any countries other than South Africa and Russia. (American Heritage)
Trump Administration seeks longer sentences for drug-related crimes and misdemeanors
There has been a major effort from the Trump Administration to change Obama’s policies regarding drug offenses and to pursue longer sentences. The return to long minimum sentences for drug offenses has resulted in additional overcrowding in our bursting at the seams jails and prisons. Many states and local governments have followed suit and are once again putting people away for very long periods for relatively minor nonviolent crimes
Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, encouraged federal prosecutors to avoid charging nonviolent drug offenders in such a manner as to invoke long minimum sentences for minor drug offenses.
The attempts of the Trump Administration to bring back the worst consequences of the War on Drugs have been a boon to private prison operations and have created more ways for corporations running prisons to profit off the taxpayers. Meanwhile, the return to War on Drugs methodology has overcrowded prisons and created burgeoning expense for cities, counties and states.
The US justice system must be reformed. It’s ridiculous and a waste of the taxpayers’ money to keep people in jail for years over a nonviolent crime. Citizens should get more for their money than a pot-smoker kept in jail for a year. Who on earth will benefit from that?
The for-profit private companies building and operating prisons are flush with taxpayer dollars for often unnecessary and ineffective incarcerations pursued by cops and prosecutors and ordered by courts.
Keeping people like the dope-smoking camper off the streets or — in this case — off the riverbank and out of the woods, is a real boost to public safety. Right. And I’m both a movie star and a mathematician.
“According to the Vera Institute of Justice, incarceration costs an average of more than $31,000 per inmate, per year, nationwide. In some states, it’s as much as $60,000. Taxpayers foot the bill for feeding, housing and securing people in state and federal penitentiaries. ” (From “How Much Does It Cost To Send Someone To Prison?” by Eliza Mills, marketplace.org. May 19, 2017.)
That was in 2017. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons the average cost rose in 2018 to $34,704. The FBP had this to say in the published Bureau summary:
“The fee to cover the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates was $34,704.12 ($94.82 per day) in FY 2016 and $36,299.25 ($99.45 per day) in FY 2017. The average annual cost to confine an inmate in a Residential Re-entry Center was $29,166.54 ($79.69 per day)…” — Federal Bureau of Prisons
Just as an example, I live in a rural county with a county jail. The population of the county is about 21,000 as of 2018 (Federal Census). The largest city has a population of about 6,000.
Using that average for this county and assuming the jail holds an average of 50 inmates and factoring in the population is just 21,000, a whopping $10,000 would be needed for each man, woman and child in the county — just to run the jail for 1 year.
It seems impossible to imagine a 100-bed jail with an average of 50 prisoners costing that much. And it probably doesn’t since this is an area with a very low cost of living, so the county and city jails here most likely operate for much less than the national average used to arrive at the $10,000 per citizen. But even if it is likely to be just $6,000 to $8,000 per citizen — it’s still sizable. Most of the local jails also temporarily hold federal prisoners, for which the federal government reimburses them. The state also reimburses county jails for housing their prisoners.
Often law enforcement leaders, when lobbying a city or county to build a new jail, will tell the governing body that the jail will pay for itself, or largely pay for itself, by holding state and federal prisoners. It never seems to work out quite that way and the administrators of local jails find themselves returning often to the governing body of the locality asking for additional funding for the jail.
Likelihood of incarceration linked to level of education attained
Several studies have shown a link between years as a student and the likelihood an individual will be incarcerated.
The report cites information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showing as of 2015, two-thirds of the inmates in state prison did not finish high school. There’s an undeniable connection between education attained and likelihood of incarceration.
Young black men ages 20–24 who lacked a high school diploma or equivalent had a better chance of going to jail than of getting a job. (BJS) That is unacceptable and must change if this country wants to address the roots of the problem of mass incarceration.
In a 33-year study of government funding all states increased spending for prisons much more than they did for education. Unbelievably, the rate of increase for corrections in most states was more than 100 percentage points higher than the increase rate for education.
Obviously, something is wrong. Our priorities are not aligned with our desired outcomes. Spending more and more for prisons while withholding spending increases for education — which has been proven to decrease the need for prisons — is outrageous. Yet it continues.
Why can we not release the people in prison who are there for possessing marijuana and other petty drug offenses, save tons of money, and apply it to educational opportunities?
Too simple, apparently.
The overall problem, however, is not simple. Not only is the nation spending about 82 billion annually just to create and maintain the space to lock people up, but studies by Washington University in St. Louis and others indicate the true cost of exceeds $1 trillion, or six percent of gross domestic product.
- The cost of locking people up exceeds $1 trillion, or six percent of gross domestic product, and dwarfs the amount spent on education, finds a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.
- “The $80 billion spent annually on corrections is frequently cited as the cost of incarceration, but this figure considerably underestimates the true cost by ignoring important social costs,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, assistant professor at the Brown School and an expert on incarceration.”
- A doctoral student, Michael McLaughlin, led a new study, “The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.” which concludes the real monetary value includes costs to incarcerated persons, families, children and communities. The economic cost of incarceration is $1.2 trillion dollars, according to McLaughlin’s study, in which he was assisted by Pettus/Davis.
It is surprising that according to prison.org in a report entitled “Mass Incarceration; The Whole Pie, most inmates in jails have not been convicted and have only been arrested and charged, but have not had a trial.
This is largely because most people held in jail are at the poverty level and cannot raise the money to bail out. Wealthy people do not sit in jail while awaiting trial. They bail out. The people left are there only because they are impoverished in the first place and have no money to use toward a bail bond. This is patently unfair and reeks of something from the past like a debtors’ prison or some similarly outdated and backward practice.
What happened to “innocent until proven guilty?” Those sitting in local jails for months awaiting trial are not beneficiaries of that cornerstone of justice. Guilty or innocent, they’re sitting in jail because a law enforcement officer or agency alleges they have committed a crime. If it turns out the person is found not guilty, but has been held in jail for months anyway, there’s no recourse. In the same way that one can’t afford bail bond, they also cannot afford an attorney and are often talked into admitting to a lesser crime than that which they are charged instead of having a trial.
In most cases a public defender is the lawyer for people without significant income. Public defenders, for a variety of reasons, including caseloads that are too heavy, incompetence, cynicism, and burnout are often insufficient advocates. Nevertheless, the large percentage of those sitting in jail have no other choice and can only hope the public defender will help them.
Something must be done about this country’s criminal justice system, which not only often punishes the most vulnerable in society too severely for minor crimes, but victimizes people for simply being poor.
One can get justice in America — all the justice one can afford. The poor are left in overcrowded prisons and jails while wealthier people charged with the same crimes go home.
Society is not well-served by the monster that is the overgrown, overcrowded prison system and the criminal justice system that created it. We should demand an overhaul.