The Costs of Mass Incarceration Examined by Congressional Panel
by Howard Silver, Consortium of Social Science Associations
The fact is that almost all the extant research points out that our prison system is too big, too expensive, drains funds away from other essential areas that can more effectively increase public safety, and is harmful to our poorest communities, Sociologist Michael Jacobson, Director of the Vera Institute of Justice, told the Congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) on October 4.
The hearing, Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?, was chaired by Sen. James Webb (D-VA). It discussed all the usual data points:
- 2.1 million Americans are in federal, state, and local prisons and jails. The average U.S. incarceration rate is over seven times the international average.
- More than seven million Americans are under some form of correction supervision, including probation and parole.
- State, local, and federal governments spend more than $200 billion on law enforcement and corrections personnel.
A black male who does not finish high school has a 60-percent chance of going to jail. As sociologist Bruce Western, Harvard University, remarked at the briefing, For young black male dropouts, prison time has become a normal life event.
How and why did this happen? Glenn Loury, Brown University Department of Economics, declared to the Committee, that the answer is the so-called War on Drugs. He noted that blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested for a drug offense in 1975, but four times as likely by 1989. In addition, in the 1990s, Loury continued, drug arrests remained at historically unprecedented levels. This was at a time, he pointed out, when the National Survey on Drug Abuse indicated that drug use was declining.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) blamed toughon-crime politics. Under the get-tough approach, no matter how tough you were last year, you have to get tougher this year, he declared. Jacobson, who was New York Citys Correction Commissioner from 1995-98, agreed with Scott on the political angle, but also noted that there are a host of other reasons: The attraction of prisons as engines of economic development for rural communities; the financial incentives for public employee as unions as well as for the private prison industry in more spending on prisons; and the realities of the budget process and constrained budgets that limit opportunities to make substantial investments in new initiatives.
The consequences of such a large prison population start with recidivism. According to Jacobson, more than half of those leaving prison are back in within three years. Western presented economic data on why: Youths detained in correctional facilities before age 20 have higher unemployment and receive lower wages long after incarceration; prison-leavers have little schooling and erratic work histories; criminal stigma not only includes social sanctions but legal ones as well, as employment in certain industries and occupations remains barred; and returning prisoners are highly concentrated in poor urban neighborhoods, which leads to the economic penalties of incarceration now permeate the most economically vulnerable families and communities.
What to do? Scott argued for raising high school graduation rates, utilizing neighborhood- based law enforcement initiatives, and increasing employment and wages. Western called for re-examination of policies limiting ex-prisoners access to educational, welfare, and housing benefits, suggesting they should have time limits. He also indicated that community based re-entry programs that are integrated with education and other programs in prison, and also provide housing, drug treatment, and health care improve the job readiness of released-prisoners.
The witnesses and the members of the JEC urged the enactment of the Second Chance Act, also known as the Community Safety Through Recidivism Prevention Act of 2007. The legislation would provide for new and innovative programs to improve offender reentry services, enhanced drug treatment and mentoring grant programs, and require the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics to conduct research on juvenile and adult offender reentry. Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have reported versions of the bill, but no floor action has occurred.
A version of this article was originally published in the November 12, 2007, issue of The Criminologist, the American Society of Criminology newsletter.