The United States locks more of its people behind bars than any other nation. About one of every 99 people is either in jail or prison, according to a study released Thursday.
The report, issued by the Pew Center on the States, notes that 2,319,258 adults were incarcerated at the start of 2019. That number is much bigger than it was just six years ago, when it first passed 2 million.
The costs of imprisoning such a large segment of the population are astronomical. The direct costs alone are huge. The study shows that the 50 states combined spent $44 billion on prisons last year. Two decades ago, that bill was only $10.6 billion. The study points out that the cost of corrections is rising six times faster than the cost of higher education.
Add to this the indirect costs of keeping people in prison. A man who is incarcerated loses his job. He goes from contributing to the economy to becoming a drain on that economy. His family goes without his income and often has to turn to public assistance for necessities.
A prison sentence is often a death sentence for a family. The resulting divorce threatens the financial, social and emotional stability in which children will be raised.
These factors multiply the direct costs of keeping more than 1 percent of our population in prison.
The nation is in this problem not because of rising crime rates but because of public policies for dealing with crime. Legislatures have created longer sentences for crimes, done away with probation for many offenses and enacted three-strike laws that result in longer prison sentences.
These measures have made lawmakers appear tough on crime for their re-election campaigns, but they have imposed a terrible cost on their states.
The solution to this problem lies in finding other ways to deal with criminals who don’t pose a threat to public safety.
Drug offenders should be sent to drug courts and other highly supervised forms of treatment. It does little good to lock up a drug offender who simply resumes his destructive path when he is released from prison.
Other nonviolent offenders can be channeled into systems that require restitution, community service, monitored house arrest and other routine supervision.
Pursuing these options would allow the justice system to reserve prisons for those who pose a threat to the rest of society. Violent offenders could be kept in prison longer. States could save some of the money spent on prisons. Nonviolent offenders could keep their careers, continue paying taxes rather than consuming them, and maintain their own families. And more of these families could be kept together.
It is costing us too much to lock up so many people. We need to use better alternatives.