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.
View more from the Graph of the Day Series.
According to an expert team of economists, political scientists, doctors, legal experts, and anthropologists at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, which for the last year has analyzed the underreported human and social costs of our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, the full economic toll of the last ten years of war is rapidly approaching $4 trillion. That is the equivalent of about 25% of U.S. GDP in 2010.
Meanwhile, the human and economic costs of the War on Terror will continue through at least mid-century, according to the report. Moreover, "many of the wars’ costs are invisible to Americans, buried in a variety of budgets, and so have not been counted or assessed. For example, while most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that, and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet. Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion."
I’m grateful to the men and women of our intelligence services and armed forces who tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden. Their bravery and methodical professionalism is remarkable.
To tell you the truth, I’m glad we just killed him, that he did not survive the firefight with our forces. Dragging him back to Guantanamo or wherever for interrogation and some sort of legal proceeding promised to be either a ghastly global spectacle or an unworthy show trial. As Hannah Arendt once put things: He didn’t want to share this planet with me, and I don’t want to share it with him, either. Ignominious burial at sea is a fitting end for him--not because he defied American power, but because he was an apocalyptic mass murderer. Good riddance to him.
It was fitting that President Obama chose the eve of the 4th of July weekend to make his latest plea for comprehensive immigration reform. It was an implicit recognition that as we celebrate our great democracy, our journey is not finished. As long as we continue to have millions of people living as our neighbors in our communities without any true prospect for inclusion in our democracy through a path to citizenship, our democracy is still incomplete.
Sixty-seven world leaders gathered in Washington for a civilized set of discussions about one of the world’s great dangers -- proliferation and the possible use of nuclear weapons. Barack Obama hosted the session, and by all accounts had numerous productive meetings with individual leaders. There was, as well, good chemistry for the meetings in general.
Perhaps what is most striking about this event is that constructive, substantive, meaningful, “sloganless” conversations are possible on an international scale of this type; the very thing that seems impossible in our domestic politics.
Imagine if Obama had gathered with sixty-seven high-level Republicans in Washington to try to work on any conceivable problem. How much substance would there be in the discussions? How much of it would consist of talking points? And how much of it would be a ready for FOX-news, prepackaged set of political slogans?
It is a sad commentary to reflect that we’ve come to the point where talking to foreigners is more enlightening and constructive than sharing our common desires to solve the nation’s domestic problems. In fact, one of the great concerns about things like the new nuclear arms control treaty and other potential restrictions on nuclear weapons is the difficulty anticipated in getting them through the United States Senate, where a two thirds majority is required to approve treaties.
The international conference in Washington, of course, created no goodwill for the President in the Capitol. Routine appointments, necessary to make the government function and to advance the policies of Mr. Obama are still being held up and in some cases abandoned because of the adamant resistance ofa small number of senators.
It’s fashionable to lament the lack of trust in the political process and to find all kinds of ways to blame economic frustrations, scandals, or other explanations for these difficulties. But it’s increasingly clear that there is an even more basic problem at work here: for all of Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship and civility in conversation, it can’t be a one-way street. He’s found sixty-six foreign leaders willing to engage in policy making along those lines, when will he find sixty-six Senators?
Way back in 2003, when the public still retained some capacity for shock and outrage over state incursions on personal privacy, there was a brief outcry when it was revealed that the Pentagon was concocting a pervasive surveillance system with the laughably Orwellian name Total Information Awareness. The program was the brainchild of Admiral John Poindexter, the former National Security Advisor and disgraced Iran/Contra conspirator, who had been an early adopter of technology in the federal government -- it was he who first introduced email to the White House -- and who believed that comprehensive surveillance presented the best hope for preventing another 9/11.
What can we gather from today’s revelations, from James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times, that the National Security Agency engaged in the improbable crime of “overcollection”— “significant and systemic” domestic eavesdropping that exceeded even the extravagant authority provided to the agency by the FISA Amendment Act of 2008? For starters, it’s time to finally acknowledge that overstretch and excess by intelligence agencies like the NSA are not the exception but the rule; as a general matter, the professional imperatives for an intelligence collector all align in favor of overcollection. And as a technical matter, the mammoth, high-tech communications vacuums operated by the NSA mean that access to a given telecom network will always take precedence over “safeguards,” “minimization procedures,” and other ex post facto measures to protect the phone calls, emails, and personal data of innocent individuals.
The lily-gilding rhetoric of Congressional democrats who supported the 2008 law notwithstanding, privacy protections are almost always an afterthought, a post-script to the non-negotiable fact of technical collection. The peculiar tragedy of the Protect America Act, the FISA Amendment Act, and the whole sordid narrative of the “warrantless wiretapping controversy” is that the very institution which might be expected to serve as a check on the almost innate zeal of the intelligence establishment—the Congress—was so willing to write any relevant safeguards out of the picture.
In that light, it’s not at all surprising to learn that the NSA has been pushing the envelope. It’s just surprising to think, after such a dramatic augmentation of surveillance authority coupled with so thorough an evisceration of meaningful safeguards, that there was any envelope left to push. It might be tempting to conclude that the sole semi-specific detail in Risen and Lichtblau’s scoop—that several years ago the NSA contemplated warrantless surveillance of a congressman—will resonate with the narcissism, paranoia, and sense of indignation on Capitol Hill and actually generate a meaningful investigation.
But really, does anyone believe that? In October a former NSA linguist revealed to ABC News that the agency had eavesdropped on hundreds of American citizens living overseas. In November another former eavesdropper told ABC that the NSA monitored the “private life” of Tony Blair. In January a third former NSA employee told MSNBC that the agency has been wiretapping journalists. None of these stories prompted any congressional investigation or inquiry into the effectiveness of the few legal and technical safeguards that are left, and it seems decidedly unlikely that congress will take any meaningful action now.
In fact, the greatest irony of the Times piece is that the overcollection was discovered not by Congress, the judiciary, or the press—but by the Justice Department. How faithfully Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, will adhere to the rule of law remains very much an open question. But after eight long years of the “unitary executive” and a surveillance law that was just a few provisions shy of an out-and-out carte blanche, intelligence excesses appear to be so bad that with no one else willing to police it, the executive branch is forced to police itself.
Remember the wiretapping scandal? With the election of Barack Obama and a widespread confidence that the new president will not abuse the prerogatives of his office in the Bush fashion, it might seem that Washington can simply turn the page on the past eight years, starting afresh with a renewed commitment to the rule of law. But as I argued in an Op-Ed for yesterday's New York Times, critical questions about the warrantless wiretapping program remain unanswered, and it may be impossible to restore the balance between aggressive intelligence work and robust protection of civil liberties without first comprehending the nature and extent of the abuses of the past eight years. The full piece is below.
And as if in answer to my questions, Newsweek has come through with an extraordinary cover-story package, revealing the identity of the Justice Department lawyer who first alerted the New York Times to the illegal program, and in another story, providing a (partial) explanation of what prompted numerous senior Justice officials to nearly resign over the program in the spring of 2004. Hopefully congress and other press outfits will seize on these new revelations and continue to untangle the various strands of this complicated -- and still significant -- story.
Big Brother Hasn’t Won
By PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE
IF you thought the wiretapping controversy ended last summer, when Congress blessed the Bush administration’s warrantless-wiretapping program by passing a new surveillance law that greatly enhanced the powers of the National Security Agency, think again. The legacy of the illegal operation represents a serious problem for the Obama administration.