Frank: Prison Costs too Much
By Austin Frank at CSA Washington and Lee University | Roanoke Times - 9/7/2014
Frank is a rising sophomore at Washington and Lee where he is an executive board member of Common Sense Action; the first bipartisan Millennial advocacy group based on 39 campuses in 20 states across the country. Frank is working towards his BA with a double major in Sociology and Politics and a minor in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Five hundred percent. That staggering number, a percentage only achieved by the most extreme trends and changes, a number that represents an almost unfathomable magnitude or shift, is the percentage by which our incarceration rate has skyrocketed over the past 30 years.
But while incarceration rates have increased by 500 percent, the United States’ total population has climbed upward by only 36 percent in this same time frame, meaning that our incarceration rate has expanded at 14 times the rate of population growth. At 2.2 million, the United States has the highest prison population worldwide; an amazing 1.4 times greater than China’s incarceration rate, which totals 1.5 million. This number might not seem overly remarkable on its own, but it is clear how shocking this is when one considers that the U.S. prison population accounts for 25 percent of the prisoners in the entire world.
These statistics only scratch the surface of the problems that are plaguing our prison system. It is troublesome to consider that 10 percent of the 30-year-old black male population is currently incarcerated. Problems with the food served, substandard medical care and violence within prisons are widespread. A recidivism rate of 43 percent reflects the lack of a proper system for reintegration; something particularly disheartening when you acknowledge the fact that 60 percent of criminals are nonviolent offenders.
Further, it is important to consider the financial costs that high rates of incarceration incur. According to a report released by the Prisons Bureau 2013, the average cost to incarcerate a federal inmate in fiscal year 2011 was $28,893.40. Considering statistics such as these, the Pew Charitable Trusts calculated that a 10 percent drop in recidivism would save states $635 million in prison costs in just the first year.
After taking all of these consequences into account, we must ask ourselves, “What can we do about this alarming trend?” Fortunately, there are a number of solutions that the voting public can pursue that simply require public support and a little bit of legislative courage.
From the wide array of solutions that have been proposed by a multitude of institutions, two appear to be the most promising. The first is reforming sentencing practices. As it stands, many states have laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes (such as non-trafficking drug offenses) that strip judges of their ability to use discretion in sentencing. Instead, mandatory minimums dictate a one-size-fits-all solution that may not befit the crimes. This has led to 60 percent of the prison population being composed of nonviolent offenders. By reducing and reforming mandatory minimums, we could greatly cut the number of incarcerated individuals and also lower the costs incurred by the penal system.
Perhaps even more important is focusing on reforming and rehabilitating those who are in jail or prison so that they are prepared to re-enter society. Indeed, this is already being implemented and programs have been created to have inmates fight wildfires and receive firefighting training in California, receive job training, and work toward educational degrees. To date, the results of this have been promising as released inmates feel more confident when they re-enter the work force, and inmate firefighters have saved the state of California more than $100 million a year.
It is clear that each and every one of us has a vested interest in reforming the penal system in this country, as not only is the human cost of such a flawed system staggering, but the financial cost to the taxpayer is as well. By implementing reforms to reassess mandatory minimums and by providing job training and education to inmates, we can strive to bring the incarceration and recidivism rates down, while improving the system for both the taxpayer and those who have been jailed.
By Austin Frank Austin Frank is a rising sophomore at Washington and Lee where he is an executive board member of Common Sense Action; the first bipartisan Millennial advocacy group based on 39 campuses in 20 states across the country. Frank is working towards his BA with a double major in Sociology and Politics and a minor in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.