As of 2005 we in the United States had more than 2 million people in prison. Another 6 million people are under supervision on parole or probation. This is the largest prison population in the world. That is even more than China or India whose populations are over one billion people.
Most prisoners have not completed high school and many can barely read. About one third were unemployed before being arrested and more than one third were making less than $5000 per year.
Black men make up only 6 percent of our general population but account for 40 percent of the prison population. This is in part due to the fact that black people are 7.8 times more likely to be imprisoned than white people when convicted of the same crime.
But what are the dollar costs to keep these people in jail? In 2005 prisons costs taxpayers nationwide more than $32 billion a year. That comes to about $1,400 per taxpayer. In Nevada in 2002 it cost $16,414 per year to keep someone in prison. It is closer to $25,000 per year now.
When the DA requests, and the judge sentences, an individual to five years in prison for a $500 theft, it costs the public more that $100,000. This is crazy. We are paying twice as much to incarcerate someone as it costs to go to the University of Nevada, Reno. In the past 20 years we have increased spending on prisons by 520 percent and only increased elementary and secondary school spending by 33 percent. Where are our priorities?
So what is the solution? How do we control the economic repercussions of “tough on crime” or “zero tolerance”? First, don’t lock up people for victimless crimes. What are victimless crimes? It is a person caught smoking marijuana or soliciting a prostitute when there is no victim. Three convictions for these minor offenses can get you locked up for life because we are “tough” on repeat offenders.
Second we need to give discretion back to the judges on sentencing and get rid of mandatory minimums. Not all offenders are at the same level of risk. Let the judge decide like they used to do.
Milwaukee started a program that uses alternative supervision for drug related sentences of up to 11 years. They provide education, drug treatment and counseling in a three-phase program. The program not only helps the inmates but it only costs about $1,700 per year versus $22,000 to keep him in prison.
We don’t need to incarcerate low level, nonviolent offenders. We have to get out of this “punishment” mind set and look for solutions to the problem. We can’t treat everyone the same as a violent offender because we can’t afford to lock them up and throw away the key. It is a waste of our money.
So the next time you hear a DA running on a “tough on crime” ticket ask him or her who’s going to pay for it.
Jeff Blanck is an attorney in private practice in Reno. He can be reached at email@example.com.