San Quentin Prison

No politician ever claims to be be soft on crime. Quite the reverse: All politicians call for the legal system to be tough on crime. One result of this, at least in the United States, has been, over the last 30 years, to create a push for stricter and more mandatory sentencing laws. While tightening up sentencing seems on the surface like an obviously good thing to do to, in reality it is not so clear.

One hidden impact of increased sentencing has been to put more people in jail, thus straining the prison system.  The result? Pew Center Research indicates that 1 in 100 Americans are in incarcerated, the highest of any nation. The report said the United States leads the world in number of people incarcerated, far ahead of even the much more populous China.

And the more people who are in jail, the more money that is needed to support the penal system. States spent more than $49 billion on corrections, the Pew report said, which is up from $11 billion 20 years before.

In many cases, such as in Wisconsin, the cost of mandatory sentencing was never seriously considered and came as a shock. This report from 2004 nicely details the various impacts on not only space, but medical costs, parole officers, drug rehabilitation programs and job placement programs, to name a few.

The Pew Center report noted that prison growth and higher imprisonment rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime or a corresponding increase in the nation’s overall population. Instead, it said, tougher sentencing measures, such as the three-strikes law, are leading to longer prison stays. “States are paying a high cost for corrections — one that may not be buying them as much in public safety as it should,” said Susan K. Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, in a news release.

Finally, the report gave some further startling numbers regarding the number of people per hundred who are incarcerated by gender and ethnic group (based on 2006 data):

  • Men ages 18 or older: 1 in 54
  • Hispanic men ages 18 or older: 1 in 36
  • Black men ages 18 or older: 1 in 15
  • Black men ages 20-34: 1 in 9

To me, these are shocking stats. I’ll have to explore them further in a later post, but, on the face of it, the situation is quite dire. Rising health costs threaten to create a vicious circle by forcing money in fixed budgets to be reallocated to basic needs at the expense of programs that enable convicts to lead productive lives after their sentence. It also comes at the expense of other much needed programs, such as education. In fact, the Pew report notes that prison budgets between 1987 and 2007 jumped 315%. This was a 127% increase even when adjusted to 2007 dollars. During the same period, higher education rose just 21% in adjusted dollars.