US Prison Industrial Complex
Prisons are housing many of the nationâ€™s mentally ill. Prisons are absorbing the cost of housing the nationâ€™s mentally ill. The number of mentally ill in prison is nearly five times the number in inpatient mental hospitals.
Today, October 4, Senator Jim Webb will conduct a Joint Economic Committee hearing to explore the steep increase in the U.S. prison population.
The hearing entitled “Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?” will host a number of experts in the field to examine the reasons behind this growth in the prison population, whether it correlates with decreases in crime, the economic costs of maintaining the prison system, and the long-term labor market and social costs of mass incarceration.
The United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. While the United States currently incarcerates 750 inmates per 100,000 persons, the world average rate is 166 per 100,000 persons. Russia, the country with the second highest incarceration rate, imprisons 624 per 100,000 persons. Compared to its democratic, advanced market economy counterparts, the United States has more people in prison by several orders of magnitude. Although crime rates have decreased since 1990, the rate of imprisonment has continued to increase.
Growth in the prison population is due to changing policy, not increased crime. Many criminal justice experts have found that the increase in the incarceration rate is the product of changes in penal policy and practice, not changes in crime rates. Changes in sentencing, both in terms of time served and the range of offenses meriting incarceration, underlie the growth in the prison population.
Changes in drug policy have had the single greatest impact on criminal justice policy. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimum sentences for possession of specific amounts of cocaine.
The Act instituted a 100-to-1 differential in the treatment of powder and crack cocaine, treating possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine the same as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. Crack cocaine is typically consumed by the poor, while powder cocaine, a significantly more expensive drug, is consumed by wealthier users. Mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack-cocaine users are comparable (and harsher in certain cases) to sentences for major drug dealers.
The composition of prison admissions has also shifted toward less serious offenses, characterized by parole violations and drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession and one out of five were for sales. The crime history for three-quarters of drug offenders in state prisons involved non-violent or drug offenses.
The prison system has a disproportionate impact on minority communities. African Americans, who make-up 12.4 percent of the population, represent more than half of all prison inmates, compared to one-third twenty years ago. Although African Americans constitute 14 percent of regular drug users, they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56 percent of persons in state prisons for drug crimes. African Americans serve nearly as much time in federal prisons for drug offenses as whites do for violent crimes.
The U.S. prison system has enormous economic costs associated with prison construction and operation, productivity losses, and wage effects. In 2006, states spent an estimated $2 billion on prison construction, three times the amount they were spending fifteen years earlier.
The combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections total over $200 billion annually. In addition to these costs, the incarceration rate has significant costs associated with the productivity of both prisoners and ex-offenders. The economic output of prisoners is mostly lost to society while they are imprisoned. Negative productivity effects continue after release. This wage penalty grows with time, as previous imprisonment can reduce the wage growth of young men by some 30 percent.
Prisons are housing many of the nation’s mentally ill. Prisons are absorbing the cost of housing the nation’s mentally ill. The number of mentally ill in prison is nearly five times the number in inpatient mental hospitals. Large numbers of mentally ill inmates, as well as inmates with HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis also raise serious questions regarding the costs and distribution of health care resources.
The United States faces enormous problems of offender reentry and recidivism. The number of ex-offenders reentering their communities has increased fourfold in the past two decades. On average, however, two out of every three released prisoners will be rearrested and one in two will return to prison within three years of release.
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