Opinion: The costs of imprisonment in America are staggering

Guess how much our nation’s system of mass incarceration costs each year? I’m talking about the taxpayer-funded budgets of prisons, jails, probation departments and the public employees who staff them. Add in the cost of running the criminal justice system; the amount spent on health care, food and incidentals for inmates; and the financial burden on families that have a person in the system. Put all that together and guess how much we, collectively, spend on our system of imprisonment in the United States: $182 billion a year.

Let that sink in for a moment. At least $182 billion — each year, according to criminal justice think tank the Prison Policy Initiative. At a time when the nation’s crime rate is declining (except in a few major cities), the cost of incarceration is ever increasing. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, the criminal justice system does little to return improved citizens back into society. As a result, within five years of release, the inmate recidivism rate is nearly 77%. We keep recycling many of the same defendants through the system. The taxpayer cost of providing public defense lawyers, for example, totals about $4.5 billion a year.

Prisoner job training programs have increased in some facilities, but meaningful rehabilitation and mental health programs to help convicts cope with reentry into society are still lacking. If more than two-thirds of ex-cons return to incarceration, then it is pretty clear we are simply warehousing human beings, hoping they will voluntarily embrace a noncriminal life upon release. Not very realistic, is it?

Another reason the system costs so much? The past practice of doling out long prison sentences resulted in today’s aging prison population that needs more costly and specialized geriatric medical attention. Research from the Vera Institute of Justice shows the cost of incarcerating older convicts — more than $12 billion a year — is double that of housing younger inmates.

There are many other reasons for the burgeoning costs. More than $5 billion is spent annually on construction of new facilities and interest payments on that construction.

Almost half the money spent on corrections goes to pay the government employees who staff the jails, prisons, parole and probation system. They have a strong lobbying force that, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, “sometimes prevents reform and whose influence is often protected even when prison populations drop.” Private prisons, by the way, house only about 8.5% of the U.S. inmate population.

Bail bond companies collect fees close to $1.4 billion annually from suspects and their families, money that is not nonrefundable. When reforms to states’ cash-bail systems are proposed to protect the poor from being jailed while awaiting trial, the bail bond industry actively — and usually successfully — fights against any changes.

You may be surprised at the latest Department of Justice statistics (from 2016) that show there are some 450,000 inmates sitting in county and city jails at any given time who have not been convicted of anything. Exact figures don’t exist, but experts agree the majority of those awaiting trial are behind bars because they were too poor to pay their bail. Might they also be a danger to the public? Maybe in some cases, but no one is keeping track of judges’ bail decisions, so an answer is elusive.

Families with a person in the system collectively pay out nearly $3 billion each year. For what? Well, if they want to stay in touch with a prisoner, they pay specialized phone companies exorbitant fees — up to $25 dollars for a 15-minute phone call. These fees total about $1.3 billion each year. And because prisoners who work and earn money make, on average, less than $1 a day, families chip in to help their loved ones buy necessities such as toothpaste, underwear, stamps and food products to supplement what they get from prison mess halls. Commissary items are always way overpriced, but it’s the only approved way to get prisoners what they need.

None of this is to say we should be soft on criminals, especially career criminals. But a quick review shows the long overdue need to change course, reprioritize and streamline the system. Offering inmates real-life education opportunities and coping programs could help insure they don’t reoffend. Suggestions to “de-incarcerate” the infirm elderly and send them back to their families would substantially decrease prison health care costs. Creating a more uniform and fair cash bail system and rewriting the rules for monopolistic prison vendors would go a long way toward a family’s ability to financially help their incarcerated loved one upon release.

The current system is bloated, largely ineffective and destined to cost more and more every year. With the prison population in decline, there is no excuse to stick with the dysfunctional status quo. Remember, it is your money that’s paying for it — to the tune of $182 billion a year.

— Diane Dimond is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.

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