Prison Misuse a Huge Burden on Taxpayers, Society

Mass incarceration costs billions each year, but the toll on society is not just financial. 
Mass incarceration costs billions each year, but the toll on society is not just financial. 

By Christopher Zoukis

There are myriad issues with the current U.S. system of mass incarceration where more people are imprisoned than any other country in the world, and often in a hugely skewed manner — one which varies widely across states. It’s vital to reduce mass incarceration for the improvement of society, and for the additional perks of saving massive amounts of money and resources.

The nation’s prison systems cost taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars. In Texas, which has the largest prison population, more than $3 billion is spent every year on prisoners —  more than $50/day or around $20,000/year per inmate. That isn’t even the highest cost per state, by far. The average is $31,000. In New York state, it tops $60,000 per year. These amounts don’t reflect additional incidental costs in other departments or jurisdictions, or reflect the conditions of the prisons — such as potential overcrowding, additional programming or counseling. They may also not reflect all of the costs associated with prison operations, such as employee benefits or health care, which may fall under other budgets.

These numbers also don’t include the additional costs of recidivism, costs related to degrading mental and physical health incurred while in prison, or the costs to the community that may occur as a result of, for example, a family member being incarcerated. Losing the primary wage earner can result in families becoming dependent on state and federal programs.

Even staunch conservatives and others who are tough on crime are beginning to recognize that this system isn’t working. It wastes money, time and resources, it punishes the lowest-level offenders too harshly, it breaks up communities and families, and in many cases — as high recidivism rates bear out — it is ineffective.

There are more cost effective and intelligent ways to deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders. Diversionary and alternative sentencing programs are one way of stemming the tide of bodies going to prison. Alternative approaches seek to address the underlying causes of crime — which often include mental illness, poverty, and a lack of employable skills or education. Many alternative programs have shown heartening results in reducing recidivism rates and enriching quality of life post-release. Supervised probation is also another option that should be increasingly considered — at a cost of $3 per day in Texas, compared to $50 per day to house a prisoner.

The costly practice of imprisoning everyone is ineffective as a crime-reduction measure — since 70 per cent of those released will re-offend — and it should not be the first response to low-level offenses. For the good of American citizens, families, communities and budgets, we need to seriously look at the cost of our current system of incarceration and address it head on.

Why not move to a model where, when possible, we can keep families together, foster thriving communities, and retain talent and taxpayers in our society, at the same time reducing the financial burden on state and country? The prison system is a misuse of resources.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.