America’s Prison Problem

Why does the United States lead the world in both total prisoners and prisoners per capita? The United States had a prison population of 2.4 million in mid-2008, greater than that of any other country, including China. Our per capita imprisonment rate of 750 per 100,000 individuals is several times greater than all other developed nations. It costs US taxpayers roughly $70 Billion per year to care for all of its prisoners, at a per-prisoner cost of roughly $30,000 per year [1]. While this accounts for feeding, housing, guarding, and providing health care for prisoners, it does not account for the economic activity lost with so many held outside of society. Can anything be done to mitigate the tremendous cost and growth rate of America’s prisons without compromising public safety?

The American prison population has grown rapidly over the last several decades, from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.4 million today, while the overall population has grown by only 33% over the same period [2]. As a result of the sheer volume of prisoners and the prison population growth rate, incarceration is now one of the largest costs borne by taxpayers, after defense, health care, and retirement benefits.

How can the US reduce the total cost of incarceration without risking public safety? Roughly half of all US prisoners were imprisoned for non-violent offenses, and imprisoning these ponzi-schemers, drunk drivers, and pot heads provides little benefit. Why not fine them heavily and simply monitor their probation via ankle bracelet? Law-abiding Americans would be better off if the million non-violent offenders behind bars instead were forced to pay financial restitution for their crimes. If even half of these non-violent offenders stayed in the work force, the net benefit to US taxpayers would be roughly $60 Billion per year, including both prison cost reductions and increased economic activity [3].

If common sense doesn’t bring elected officials to explore other forms of punishment for non-violent offenders, then exploding state and federal budgets will force the issue. Witness California, where a federal judge is calling for the release of 43,000 California prisoners to reduce overcrowding. California lacks the funds needed to properly house its prisoners, so it will have to take a hard look at other forms of punishment. Why not use harsh fines and probation to punish non-violent offenders, thereby earning the state money, saving tax dollars, and keeping the economy more productive at the same time?

[1] According to the New York Times, the annual cost to house a prisoner varies widely by state ($12,000 to $45,000), but is rising rapidly nationwide due to rising health care costs. If we assume $30,000 per prisoner per year as a mean, then it costs $72 Billion annually to incarcerate 2.4 million prisoners.

[2] Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that the prison population nearly quintupled from 1980 to 2008 (up 380%), while Census data show that the US population rose only 33% during the same period. The prison population has grown at ten times the rate of the population over the period.

[3] Taxpayers would directly save around $35 Billion annually if the prison population were halved by releasing non-violent offenders into probation. If half of the non-violent offenders were able to gain employment, these 600,000 employed workers would contribute roughly $25 Billion annually to the economy (assuming average US per capita income). The total net benefit to the economy would be around $60 Billion per year.

3 thoughts on “America’s Prison Problem

  1. Because as long as prison systems make SOME people lots and lots of money
    there will be more. Prisons are considered to be desirable in poor economic areas so that more poor people can work as government slaves to enslave people just like themselves.

    Check out Don Hutto Facility in Texas where women and children are “prisoners”.

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