America’s Other Housing Crisis

By Cat Boyle

America’s twenty-first century fiscal crisis has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle scrambling to eliminate waste in the budget. In the crosshairs of this foray are a burgeoning prison population and outdated prison policies that are a huge cost in dollars and human potential. The political trend is to downsize American prison population by liberalizing some of the criminal-justice policies affecting nonviolent, elderly and ill offenders who are deemed no threat to society.

Today, there are 7.1 million men and women subject to some form of correctional supervision. This figure includes 2.3 million people presently serving time in federal and state prisons or city and county jails. The organization, No New Prisons, reports nearly 70 percent of the federal prison population is black. While Paul Wright, in his article, “The crime of being poor” states that black men make up 6% of the national population but almost half of the nation’s prison population.  In addition, one in nine black men between the ages of 20-34 is incarcerated in a federal prison; whereas for white men the ratio is one in 30 for the same age group.

According to a 2012, NAACP report, theU.S.prison population is growing thirteen times faster than the general population.  McCluskey and Rooks writing for the Huffington Post in 2011, have reported that half of those serving time today were convicted of non-violent drug offenses. That same report stated that in many institutions, education or vocational training for inmates is severely restricted and arbitrarily administered.

Other studies have revealed that 50 percent of those incarcerated have mental health or drug problems, with only one in seven receiving treatment. And, over half of female inmates are physically or sexually abused.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic of all, published by Worldwatch Institute in its February 2012 issue noted that America with less than five percent of the world’s population, houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

In reviewing the abundance of studies, polls and reports on the subject is a reconfirmation of the social inequities and injustices of the currentU.S.prison system, all-the-while underscoring the waste of human potential.

And at a time in our history where federal spending is one of three hottest of political topics, incarceration is expensive!  Brian Resnick, writer for The Atlantic, reports that today, one year at New Jersey State Prison cost $44,000. A year atPrincetonUniversity(as a student), will cost you $37,000. Average costs range from $18,000 a year inMississippito around $50,000 inCalifornia.

Ineffective programs that are underfunded are just that!. But what of our prison system in general, where at least on a per-person basis, seem more than sufficiently funded.

How did we get here? The War on Drugs, a familiar phrase coined by President Nixon in 1971, became embodied in February 1982 by President Reagan. He declared the War on Drugs—illicit drugs—marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Congress enthusiastically supported Reagan domestic war and approved national drug legislation that allocated resources, and administered hard-line drug policies and law enforcement programs.

During a seven year period of Reagan’s two-term presidency, $4.3 billion was allocated annually to the War on Drugs. The same hard-line policy continued through the Bush administrations. Today, a growing number of legislators are considering sentencing revisions for the most trivial of crimes, which include many of the non-violent type.

As an apparent result of the Reagan policies, prison population grew by over a million people between 1980 and 2010.  Nevertheless, the U.S.drug market remained the largest and most lucrative in the world. According to Reiman imprisoning drug offenders does nothing to reduce the number of drug offenders in society because they are immediately replaced.

Bottom-line, sending people to prison is expensive for government as well as for tax-payers. In 1987 during the Reagan years, the states combined spent $10.6 billion of their discretionary tax dollars on corrections; last year states spent $44 billion to house prisoners. Even during the fiscal year of 2008, during the Great Recession, prisons’ share of state general funds grew more than other categories of state spending, according to McClusky and Rook’s 2011 article, Investing in Prisons over Education Is Never Being Smart on Crime.

It should come as no surprise that during the last two decades, as the criminal justice system came to assume a larger proportion of state discretionary dollars, state spending on prisons was six times the rate of state spending on higher education.

So where do we go from here?

Americans favor less prison time for low-risk, non-violent offenders and favor sending less offenders to prison if they have no offenses in the past  reported McClusky and Rooks in same article cited above.

In response to the growing trend to reduce prison population, at least 20 states adopted criminal justice polices that may contribute to a reduction in prison populations.

One of those states,Texas, was chosen by The Council of State Governments to be a Justice Reinvestment Project, which offered guidance on prison reform.Texaslegislators, since 2008, have been instituting a number of reforms to reduce its prison population and have saved a reported $1 billion.

It is clear based on the reports, studies and polls regarding theU.S.prison culture that not all crimes are created equal and, apparently, not all people are created equal. Legislators need to address class issues inherent inAmerica’s prison system. Perhaps, the trend to downsize prison population will focus legislator attention on the need to act on class issues inherent in theAmerica’s prison system as well as repeal draconian sentencing laws and probation-parole policies of the 1980s. The time is right for a more rational, humane choice on who is locked up inAmericaand who goes free.


Posted by at February 25, 2012
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