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Keeping 2.3 million people behind bars costs us $80 billion a year

Let’s talk about the U.S. prison system, shall we? By that I mean the whole shebang. Prisons run by the federal government, state and locally run jails, and juvenile correctional institutions, and let’s toss in immigration detention facilities, military prisons and the 76 jails on Indian lands.

All together, the United States of America’s criminal justice system imprisons more than 2.3 million inmates, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The PPI undertook the massive job of pulling together all the far-flung statistics from incarceration facilities all across the country. This unruly behemoth of a system costs U.S. taxpayers $80 billion each year.

Let that sink in. $80 billion each year. Is it too much to wonder whether all that taxpayer money is being spent wisely?

America accounts for almost 5 percent of the planet’s population, but we imprison about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. That’s more than any other developed country in the world. So what’s the deal? Is our country so full of dangerous criminals who must be locked up to keep the rest of us safe? Or might we be doing something wrong? I’m going with the latter.

First, realize that a substantial number of people – about 443,000 according to PPI – are held in local jails, although they have not been convicted of a crime. They are there because they couldn’t scrape up bail money. Surely, some of these inmates are guilty, but if a judge decided they could be released on bail, their alleged crime was, presumably, not that serious. Some are held on charges as minor as driving with an invalid license or failing to identify oneself to an officer. Poorer citizens can languish behind bars for days, months and even years waiting for trial.

In one heart-wrenching case, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was held at New York’s infamous Rikers Island for three years on charges that he’d stolen a backpack. The teen spent two of those years in solitary confinement. Browder was ultimately released after prosecutors lost track of their eyewitness and dropped the case. Once free, Browder earned his high school diploma but, unable to cope, committed suicide. Holding hundreds of thousands of people in jail while they await trial not only reeks of being unconstitutional, it goes against the legal tenant of being “innocent until proven guilty.” It leaves families in tatters, forces spouses onto welfare and makes it hard for the accused to find work due to their record of incarceration. And it socks taxpayers with a huge bill for prisoners’ room and board.

I say it’s time to develop a system that swiftly and surely punishes those who fail to show up for trial instead of assuming no one will show unless they have money on the line. If they don’t have money for bail, it’s unlikely they’ll skip the state.

In addition, we’ve got to acknowledge that severely mentally ill people do not belong in jails or prisons. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many of these afflicted citizen are currently behind bars, but best estimates indicate there are at least 356,000 prisoners in jails and state prisons who should be in a mental institution. Guards have no training to deal with the mentally sick who endanger themselves and others.

Then there are those who are serving extraordinarily long federal prison sentences for non-violent drug-related crimes. Three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing guidelines resulted in even low-level drug offenders being sentenced to life in prison because they had a police record. President Obama began a program to free those shown to be model prisoners, but countless thousands more remain locked up in our incarceration industry.

Last December, Time magazine reported results of a three-year review of the system with an eye toward figuring out how many Americans are unnecessarily imprisoned. While some of their calculations could be seen as subjective, Time’s criminologists, lawyers and statistical researchers came to an astounding conclusion:

“We found that approximately 39 percent of the nationwide prison population – 576,000 people – is behind bars with little public safety rationale,” they wrote.

So how much money could we save if all those inmates identified as safely releasable were allowed to go home? According to Time’s study, “$20 billion annually, enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers or 327,000 school teachers.” You should read Time’s report.

As America’s crime rates have steadily gone down, the prison population continued to go up. It’s too many in lockup awaiting trial, too many mentally ill inmates and too many prisoners serving sentences we now realize were draconian to begin with. Have we really been controlling public safety with the current incarceration system – or has the ever-more-bloated corrections system taken control of us?

I’m going with the latter.





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