Photo Courtesy of AP Images
By Alexia Mersola
With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the worlds prison population. Since 1978 our prison population has risen 408%, so why is it that the “Land of the Free” is the world’s largest jailer?
In America, our criminal justice system should keep communities safe and treat people fairly, regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their bank account. In order for our system to do a good job, it must be cost effective by using our taxpayer dollars and public resources wisely. But our criminal justice system is not doing a good job. It has failed on every account: public safety, fairness and cost effectiveness. However, the runaway growth of US corrections did not come overnight, and did not come from the government alone.
In the 1970s, lawmakers were dealt with a nationwide rash of drug use and crime. By declaring a nation wide war on drugs in 1971, President Richard Nixon set a precedent for hard-line policies towards drug- related crimes. New York governor Nelson Rockwell followed “declaring” for drug pushing, life sentences, no parole and no probation. His policies once put into action promise 15 years to life in prison for drug users and dealers. His policies catalyzed the growth of a colossal corrections system that currently houses an estimated 2.2 million inmates.
The average cost of incarcerating an American prisoner varies from state to state. Some states, like Indiana have managed to keep prices low at around $14,000 per inmate. While states like New York pay around $60,000 to keep its citizens behind bars. The costs of running the American prison system is expensive and has become increasingly so despite public opposition. According to a 2012 Vera Institute of justice study, the number of those incarcerated has increased by over 700% over the last four decades. The cost to taxpayers: 39 billion dollars.
Where does all this money go? The study contends that many corrections related costs, such as employee benefits and taxes, pension contributions, retiree health care contributions, legal judgments and claims are deemed central administrative costs. So what needs to be reformed? What could be done to lower the amount of those incarcerated and the costs of running a prison system? The answer is quite simple, but of course, money finds a way to complicate it.
The root of the problem certainly starts with the insane sentencing laws in the U.S. California, for instance had no problem sentencing a person to 25 to life for stealing a $100 leaf blower back in 1995. Luckily, the 3 strikes law was amended to save money and let these non-violent offenders return to society. Another point that would help reform our prison systems would be to stop the sentence once an inmate has been released, by this I mean that instead of shaming inmates for being released, try and intergrade them back into society. By providing these inmates with job training opportunities, actual jobs upon release and reentry programs to help stay out, the U.S could reduce recidivism, save money and make productive members of society out of these inmates.