Nation pays high cost to imprison millions

March 11, 2008 

Now that the United States has a higher prison population than any other nation in the world, the challenge to reverse that trend becomes more pressing than ever.

More than 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States. That amounts to more than one in very 100 adults.

The figures regarding African Americans are far more distressing: One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34, and one in 15 of those 18 or older are serving time. So are one in 36 adult Latino men.

The United States is well ahead of second-place China, which is far more populous but has a prison population of 1.5 million. In Russia, 809,000 are behind bars.

Texas, whose prison population is the largest in the nation, incarcerates nearly 172,000 people. That is more than the entire prison populations of many countries.

The United States has not only the largest number of inmates but also the highest incarceration rate as a percentage of the total population. The U.S. now puts people in jail at a higher rate than nations such as South African and Iran.

Keeping that many people in prison -- and fed, clothed, housed and guarded -- is expensive. The 50 states last year spent about $50 billion on corrections, which is up from $11 billion two decades ago. The federal government spends another $5 billion.

South Carolina has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation with 24,217 people behind bars. It cost the state $444 million to run its prisons during the past fiscal year.

That amounts to 49 cents for every dollar spent on higher education. At least five other states spend more on corrections than they do on higher education.

Officials at the Pew Center concede that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate, keeps society safer and provides suitable punishment. But millions of inmates nationwide do not fall into that category.

In South Carolina, 11,000 inmates are nonviolent offenders, and another 8,000 are first-time offenders. And many more are aged or infirm, wards of the state at a time in their lives when failing health is likely to make caring for them enormously expensive.

While the nation is expert at putting people in prison, it fails the test of keeping them from returning. Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Justice show that more than a third of the people sent to prison in 2005 were arrested on parole violations. The Pew study notes that more than half of inmates released are back in prison within three years.

Those figures point to the need not only for better rehabilitation programs but also for alternatives to hard time. Other options could include better drug treatment for inmates, relaxed parole rules and fewer mandatory minimum sentences.

In South Carolina, state Attorney General Henry McMaster has proposed a "middle court" that would deal primarily with first-time, nonviolent offenders. This alternative court would offer a probation program that included job training, education and drug treatment for those who qualify.

This rehabilitative approach would be far less expensive than housing inmates in prison at an annual cost of about $15,000 each. But it also holds promise of reducing recidivism and providing first-time offenders a realistic chance of turning their lives around.

This is only one piece of the puzzle. States need to take a more creative approach to dealing with low-risk offenders, improving success rates for rehabilitation and finding alternatives to prison.

As the Pew report makes clear, the price we pay for keeping one in 100 American adults behind bars is too high in terms of both money and wasted human potential.

IN SUMMARY

America now ranks as the nation with the highest prison population in the world.

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