Following Tuesday’s post on America’s disturbing incarceration rate – the highest in the world by a wide margin – it is worth taking a closer look at the true economic cost of keeping one out of every 48 working-age men in prison or jail.
According to a 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), federal, state, and local governments spent about $75 billion on corrections in 2008, most of which paid the high cost of keeping inmates incarcerated. CEPR estimates show that reducing the number of non-violent offenders in prisons and jails would lower this cost by almost $17 billion per year, with most of the savings going towards the most financially strapped states and local governments. And, according to the report, “every indication is that these savings could be achieved without any appreciable deterioration in public safety.” This is because, as the below graph demonstrates, while incarceration rates have remained unacceptably high, the violent crime rate has been dropping since 1992.
The gap between the number of people in U.S. prisons and the violent crime rate has been diverging significantly since violent crime peaked in 1992. While the incidence of violent crime has been decreasing for almost two decades, incarceration rates have continued to rise, reaching nearly 600% of their 1975 levels in 2008. Currently, non-violent offenders make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population, with drug offenders accounting for about a quarter. That is a staggering 250% increase since 1980, when less than 10 percent of the prison population were non-violent drug offenders.
The cost of housing each individual inmate, according to the Center for Effective Public Policy, is approximately $35,000 a year. With the recession taking a particularly harsh toll on local governments, many states have been forced to reconsider the policies that lead them to imprison so many people. Appearing "tough on crime," usually an uncomplicated position for politicians during election years, has begun to look increasingly unsustainable.
However, the problem of America's overcrowded prisons represents not only a fiscal crisis, but also a humanitarian one. On May 23rd, the Supreme Court upheld in a 5-4 decision the ruling of a lower court that ordered California's prisons to reduce their number of inmates by 30,000, citing the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The lower court had written that "an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies."
A gym used as a dormitory in an overcrowded prison in Chino, California, in 2007. Source: NYT.
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