Americans Spend $260 Each to Keep People in Prison

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The U.S. crime rate may be way down, but incarceration (and its hefty price tag) continues to go up.

America – the land of the free – has the world’s largest prison population. And the cost of incarceration in the U.S. is steep.

According to a new report from The Hamilton Project, incarceration in America comes with an annual $80 billion price tag. It may be hard to grasp the enormity of that cost, but if you break it down, keeping people in prison costs each U.S. resident $260 per year, CBS News said.

The cost of corrections is even more difficult to stomach when you consider that the overall rate for violent and property crimes has gone down 45 percent in the last 20 years. CBS said:

“For every prisoner there are costs and benefits to incarceration,” said Ben Harris, a co-author of “Ten Economic Facts about Crime and Incarceration in the United States.” “For someone who has committed a violent offense, we as a society can agree it’s worth putting this person in prison.”

But when it comes to “putting a person in prison to reduce the chance they will commit a low-level crime, such as dealing a small amount of drugs, the benefits aren’t as obvious,” Harris said.

A number of factors have led to the explosion in the prisoner population, including mandatory sentencing policies, repeat-offender laws and increased criminalization of drug-related activity, CBS said.

Nearly 1 in 100 adults are in prison or jail in the U.S. – a rate five to 10 times higher than in Western Europe and other democracies, according to The Washington Post. Even with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is home to nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, which hardly gives us bragging rights. What’s more, the Post said:

Today, minorities constitute 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. Men under the age of 40, the poorly educated, people with mental illness and drug and alcohol addicts are also over-represented.

Blacks in particular have been disproportionately arrested for drug crimes.

The National Research Council recently released a lengthy report on incarceration is the U.S. that essentially concludes that “all of its costs – for families, communities, state budgets and society – have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction,” the Post said.

The report suggests that the U.S. needs to consider the following when discussing criminal justice policy:

  • Sentencing for criminal offenses should be in proportion to their seriousness.
  • The period of confinement should be based on achieving the goals of the sentencing.
  • “The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one’s fundamental status as a member of society.”

How do you feel about footing $260 of the prison bill on an annual basis? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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