How to Waste Money and Lives: The American Prison System

In 1970, fewer than 200,000 Americans were incarcerated. Today, with some 2.3 million in prison or jail, the US has more people and a higher percentage of its population locked up than any other country. Adding those on probation and parole, over seven million are under penal supervision. Although much of the growth stems from tougher drug laws, increased sentencing for most offenses has played a large role, too. According to criminologist Todd Clear, prison sentences in the US today average almost twice as long as thirty years ago. American prisoners now endure sentences twice those of the English, four times those of the Dutch, and five to ten times those of the French for the same crimes.

Our penal system affects more middle-class white Americans than we might realize, yet the impact on them is tiny compared with that on minorities - especially young black men from impoverished urban neighborhoods. Over 90 percent of inmates are male, and while 12 percent of the U.S. population is African-American, over 40 percent of prisoners with sentences longer than one year are black. The toll on black families has been incalculable. From the end of slavery until 1970, most black children lived in a two-parent household; now, the majority are cared for only by women. While not the only factor at play, the numbers of black men behind bars have left an entire cohort of girlfriends, wives, and female relatives to raise their kids alone. In minority urban ghettos, where the effects are concentrated, so many men are incarcerated that children think of this as a normal part of adult male life. Many barely know imprisoned fathers. With most prisoners sent off more than 100 miles from home, family visits can be next to impossible. An added irony is that the prisons support the economies of distant, mainly rural and white locales, while the inner cities bearing the brunt of crime remain impoverished.

The costs of our incarceration binge fly in the face of economic sense. From 1982 to 2006, the amount spent on corrections rose by 660 percent. The 2009 bill for jails and prisons was over $60 billion; New Jersey, where I live, spent about $39,000 on each state prisoner in 2009, far more than the cost of tuition at a state college. Some states have cut corrections budgets in response to the economic crisis, but others have increased them, as has the federal government. Our enthusiasm for locking up people raises important moral questions about ourselves. Dostoyevsky was right on the mark when he wrote, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." But even if we focus only on dollars and cents, we must consider the lost opportunities to invest resources in schools, free clinics, afterschool programs, transportation, and other public goods. Politicians and the media have everyone in a frenzy about deficits. Two obvious ways to balance government budgets are to tax the rich and cut defense spending, but it would certainly help if we reduced the populations behind prison walls. Some states have made small moves in this direction, aided by recent declines in crime. But politicians are generally fearful that if they advocate policies to reduce prison populations, they will appear soft on crime.

Despite our harsh prison sentences, however, most released inmates are rearrested within three years. Many get charged with parole violations, but the majority with new crimes. If incarceration is supposed to deter people from illegal behavior, it is not working for ex-prisoners. One reason is that most return to the jobless inner cities they came from, where criminal activity can seem the only way to make a living. Another is how corrections budgets are allocated.

I tell students in my medieval history classes that for all our lip service to rehabilitating offenders, it is striking how much less this goal seems reflected in our penal policies than in those of European communities in the early Middle Ages, from about 500 to 1100. This is not to deny that early medieval justice could be brutal. Kings and lords condemned countless enemies to execution and dependants to be branded, blinded, or lose noses or ears. Judicial courts ordered torture and threw offenders into dungeons, where they might stay in chains until they died. It is no wonder the era is often called the Dark Age. Yet offsetting this nasty picture was the widespread practice of addressing an array of offenses, sometimes even murder, not through arbitrary judgment but as if they were disputes requiring negotiations. In these cases, negotiators worried less about formal law than restoring the peace by reconciling offenders with victims, victims' representatives, and anyone else who felt wronged. Offenders were punished, but a key aim of the punishment was rehabilitation. This might require that they pay reparations, undergo penance, or perform a public ritual of humiliation. Such penalties were designed to repair the broken social bonds and ease the offenders' reintegration into their communities.

By contrast, criminal justice in the twenty-first century US gives rehabilitation short shrift. Many inmates suffer from mental illness and addictions, yet treatment programs for them are underfunded. So, too, is education; yet education may be the single most effective means to rehabilitate offenders.

While not every prisoner needs substance abuse treatment, all could benefit from education. Most prisons have education programs, but they reach a fraction of their populations and average only 1 to 3 percent of state corrections budgets. The Center for Prison Outreach and Education that I co-direct provides college programming in New Jersey prisons thanks to federal grants and private benefactors; most notably, we have generous support from Doris Buffett's Sunshine Lady Foundation. It has taken a lot of work to collect this extra funding. Despite the reluctance of state governments to fund prison education adequately, dollar for dollar, educating inmates is a more effective tool of crime reduction than building new prisons. Ex-prisoners face major barriers upon release; education increases their ability to navigate the hurdles and makes them more employable. One study estimates it lessens recidivism by 29%. Another revealed a 44 percent drop in recidivism for inmates who earned college degrees. Another suggests that $962 spent on academic education for inmates saved $5306 in future criminal justice costs. Along the way, educational programs also reduce violence inside prisons, improving security for both inmates and staff.

African-American men who do not finish high school have almost 60 per cent chance of doing time by age forty. For those with high school diplomas, the rate plummets to 18 percent, and for those with some college education the chances are less than 5 percent. If we genuinely want to enhance public safety, help poor minority families, AND have more money to spend on public services for everyone, a truly cost-effective strategy would be to put substantial energy and resources into prisoner education.

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