Monday, July 26, 2004

There are too many people in prison in America

Why you're right:

1. For many non-violent crimes, treatment is more effective than incarceration. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) found that every dollar spent on drug treatment outside of prison for drug law violators yields $8.87 in benefits in the form of reduced crime and regained productivity. Drug treatment in prison yielded less than $3 in benefits for every dollar spent. In jail, drug treatment is available to just 1 in 10 prisoners that need it. (Justice Policy Institute, Atlantic Monthly)

2. The prison population is a drain on state and federal budgets. In 2002, taxpayers shelled out $40 billion to keep one out of every 143 people in jail. It costs $20,000 a year to keep someone in jail. It costs $100,000 to construct each cell. This spending is perpetuated at the urging of private industry, which views the costs "not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market."(CBS News, Atlantic Monthly)

3. Growth in the U.S. prison population is not related to an increase in crime. Last year the prison population topped 2 million, an all-time record. The prison population has steadily increased for years "at a time when the crime rate nationwide has been relatively stable." The increase is the result of strict sentencing guidelines – implemented in the 1990s – that have subjected many non-violent offenders to lengthy jail terms. (New York Times)

Why they're wrong:

1. Incarceration rates are frequently justified by the necessity to be "tough on crime." But the objective is not to be macho, it's to be effective. For many non-violent crimes – especially drug crimes – it is far more effective to provide treatment instead of jail time.

2. Prison is not an effective deterrent for future crime. More than two thirds of those who spend time in prison end up going back. This is due partly to the fact that even non-violent offenders are forced to adopt violent and aggressive behavior to survive prison life. (The Nation)