The Land of the Free … in Jail

The most expensive service our government provides to its citizens, other than heroic healthcare in Medicare, Medicaid and the VA, is to lock them up.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, the annual average cost per prisoner in 2008 was $26,000 at the federal level and $24,000 at the local level. Small states likeRhode IslandandVermontestimate their costs much higher at $35-$45,000 a year. This is two to three times our per-pupil costs for public education.

At 743 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, the US incarceration rate is roughly six times greater than that of England, Australia or China. It’s even significantly greater than that of Russia.

The “Land of the Free” now incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world.

The term “penitentiary,” meaning a place to do “penance” derives from the early Quaker belief that confining one in solitary would afford them time to consider and repent for their transgressions. Today’s massive penitentiaries sprang from that belief and help explain why we are so out of sync with the rest of the world.

Today, there are three reasons given for putting people in jail: public safety, deterrence and retribution. Statistically, only the first is effective. Most crimes occur in a fit of testosterone, rage, desperation or panic. About-to-be criminals don’t pause and reflect on outcomes …so much for deterrence.

In Christianity at least, Old Testament retribution gave way to Christ’s admonition to forgive. But that persistent Old Testament demand of an eye for an eye is hard to quell and usually trumps the rationale that sending an offender to what amounts to a crime academy doesn’t serve the victim, the criminal or society …so much for retribution.

A society’s incarceration cost usually correlates with its economic stability, addiction rates and random fears ginned up by politicians. Most experts agree that economic crime and incarceration increase as more people fall into poverty.

But the conservative right seems curiously untroubled by the erosion of our once robust middle class and reluctant to acknowledge the increasing number of Americans losing economic ground. They point instead to the tiny minority clawing their way into the rarified world of wealth derived from interest and dividends.

Furthermore, they complain about the cost and size of government, specifically the social safety net and its mandates, but we hear little from them about the skyrocketing cost of incarceration, perhaps because it’s been privatized into a highly profitable business.

It’s hard to deny the correlation between economic stability, equal opportunity and the distribution of wealth – and crime and the cost of corrections. Property crimes occur along a spectrum from need to greed. A parent will steal food to feed a starving child; a kid may kill simply for a pair of designer sneakers. With this in mind, we need to differentiate and invest more in programs like reparative justice, court diversion and early release. We cannot sustain the high cost of corrections, especially when it corrects so little.

By the way our detention rate in Vermont is one of the highest in the nation.

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