America’s prisons have a severe overcrowding problem that’s breaking the bank.
The U.S. has 4.4 percent of the world's population, but nearly a quarter of the world's prisoners, according to the latest study by the International Centre for Prison Studies. And the myriad flaws within the U.S. justice system are creating unaffordable and dangerous problems for society as a whole.
Conservatives are already at the forefront of modernizing our criminal-justice laws. Several traditionally Republican-leaning states have made notable progress toward reducing corrections spending while reinforcing policies that reduce crime.
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Texas, for example, saved more than $3 billion in prison costs by expanding drug treatment programs and changing its approach to dealing with nonviolent offenders. Youth commitments to state institutions in Texas have fallen by over 50 percent since 2007 and crime rates have continued to fall. Other states are beginning to use some of the same strategies to reduce their prison populations.
Reforms like these are encouraging, but there is still a lot more work to do. Here are three reasons why conservatives should support prison reform:
1. Prisons Aren’t Cost-Effective
All government programs should be judged on whether they provide the best value at the lowest possible cost. Government corrections programs are no different.
The nonpartisan Vera Institute of Justice reports the U.S. spends an average of $31,000 per prisoner, per year on over 1.5 million prisoners nationwide. But over two-thirds of offenders released from prison in 2005 were arrested again within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A failure rate this high shows prisons are failing to prepare inmates for reentry into society.
Prison makes sense for people convicted of violent crimes, but officials should look at prison as a last resort when no cheaper or more effective alternatives exist. America’s corrections system should deliver justice for victims and reform offenders – prisons do neither. And for some, time in prison only enables a life of crime. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that people who were incarcerated as a juvenile had a much greater chance of being incarcerated again as an adult.
What does work? Many local jurisdictions are starting to use drug courts, where offenders avoid prison in exchange for undergoing supervised drug-treatment programs and regular drug testing. One study by the Department of Justice showed over 70 percent of drug-court participants had not reoffended within two years of participation. And not only are drug courts effective, they cost much less than keeping an offender in prison. Drug court and mental-health court participants cost taxpayers between $4,000 and $12,000.
Another way to assess the value of prisons is to ask how they ensure victims are compensated for their losses. Generally speaking, they don’t. Prisons remove dangerous criminals from the street, which is valuable, but when someone is incarcerated they aren’t earning money to compensate the victims they harmed. A thief who stole a television, for example, isn’t paying his or her victim for the loss of their property. In fact, it’s the victim, as a taxpayer, who is compelled to support them in jail. There’s nothing fair about that.
2. Incarceration Breaks Up Families
Most conservatives believe families are the backbone of society. But if there’s one thing prisons are good at, it’s ruining family stability. Almost 2.7 million children in the U.S. have at least one parent in prison. Studies show that children with an incarcerated parent are six times more likely to end up in prison themselves.
While part of the rationale for incarceration is to punish offenders, one also needs to be aware of how incarceration impacts family support systems. Seeing one’s father on rare occasions, while he sits behind bars or a plastic wall, is no substitute for children having two parents at home.
For nonviolent offenders, courts should opt for punishments that allow offenders to live under community supervision or probation when possible. This is an important step the U.S. can take toward reuniting and preserving families all over the country.
3. Prisons Encourage Dependence
Someone who completes a prison sentence is expected to be rehabilitated, find work and contribute to society.
Sadly, this doesn’t happen for many people.
Why not? Outside of the stigma of hiring someone with a criminal record, government policy makes it incredibly difficult for anyone with a record to find a job. Occupational licensing restrictions in many states legally forbid people with criminal records from working in many places. In Illinois, for example, there are more than 100 work licenses or business permits that someone with a criminal record may not be allowed to attain.
It’s already difficult enough to find employment with a criminal record, let alone with the government taking away a person’s right to earn a living. Prison hinders work prospects by removing people from job markets and providing few opportunities to improve or acquire skills.
No one should have to ask the government’s permission to find a job and survive. If ex-offenders are unable to provide for themselves, they are faced with three options: relying on the government through welfare programs, turning back to a life of crime or some combination of the two.
Under the current system, no matter what crime a person commits or punishment a judge hands down, a convict is often delivered a life sentence of joblessness and dependence. Reforming the criminal-justice system can help ensure that the U.S. is a place where justice is delivered for victims, criminals and taxpayers alike.
Bryant Jackson-Green is a policy analyst with the Illinois Policy Institute.
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