Pretty bad. From 1987 to 2007, the US prison population nearly tripled. The American prison population in 2004 was eight times what it was in 1954. In 2008, it was 40 times what it was in 1904. On a per capita basis, there were 15 times as many convicted inmates in 2008 as there were in 1904. In early 2008, 2,319 .258 Americans were in prison or jail, more than in any other country in the world, and a higher percentage of our population is in prison or jail than in any other country in the world. As of early 2009, the total inmate population in the United States was 2,424,279. That’s just the number behind bars, four times as many people as are in the US military, more than Utah in the last census. With 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners. In 2010, more Americans are serving life sentences than ever before. Prisoners now have their own inspirational lifestyle publication, “Prison Living Magazine.”
In 2007, the entire US correctional population, which includes jail and prison inmates plus those on probation and parole, numbered 7,328,200. At the end of 2008, the number of parolees and parolees increased again. Add in the ex-convicts who have completed sentences, parole, or parole, and all who are in thrall to their addictions, and the number of living Americans who are now or once were in thrall exceeds 10,000,000. Each year, some 13.5 million people spend time in jail or prison, and 95% are released. Reducing the number behind bars does not directly decrease the correctional population. More than two-thirds of the correctional population is out of prison, on parole, on probation, or awaiting trial. When the prison population peaks and then declines, it probably just means there are more criminals out there.
The hyper-incarceration statistics for African-American men are much worse. We incarcerate one in nine African Americans between the ages of 20 and 34. In 2007, the US Department of Justice estimated that African-American men have a 32% chance of going to jail or prison (becoming a slave) in their lifetime. Young black high school dropouts are nearly 50 times more likely to end up behind bars than the average American, and 60% of that demographic cohort eventually goes to prison.
Prison costs create big holes in state budgets, but they don’t improve recidivism. The total cost exceeded $49,000,000,000.00 in 2007, and fairly recent figures show a national operating cost per prisoner of $23,876.00 per year. One study pegged the total costs at more than $60 billion. Costs continue to rise, taking ever larger portions of the state’s general fund and crowding out other priorities. Forward-looking criminologists, recognizing the lack of good answers in penology, actively seek new evidence-based techniques from other disciplines. The state of California pays $49,000 per prisoner per year according to its governor in mid-2009, who also said the national average is now $32,000 per prisoner per year. With more inmates serving life sentences without speaking and longer sentences, the costs of incarceration are continually rising due to rising health care expenses for older convicts.
It’s not just prisons that are overcrowded and expensive. Officers who oversee probation and probation often have more cases to handle than previously thought optimal. At the beginning of 2008, more than 5.1 million adult men and women were on parole or probation. Supervising each of those parolees and parolees costs thousands of dollars a year. Direct spending on the police and justice system has also increased by several hundred percent over the past 30 years, now totaling around $150 billion dollars per year.
Americans of both parties thought we were done with welfare as we knew it when work was required of welfare recipients, but we forgot about the larger group of unemployed welfare recipients. The millions of social parasites that we fully support in prisons and jails went almost unnoticed during welfare reform. Very few prisoners pay more than a small fraction of their upkeep; most pay zero. Unlike welfare recipients who may receive some money for food, clothing, and shelter, we provide inmates with all of their regular, balanced meals, decent clothing, shelter, utilities, court-ordered medical and dental care, medications , education, limited postage privileges, recreation, toiletries, bedding, various forms of treatment or therapy, and for those in isolation, their own private cells with room service. Many enjoy television, radio, or music devices. President Clinton announced in 1998 that inmates would be barred from receiving Social Security checks, but thousands of inmates received stimulus checks from the US government in 2009, many by mistake. According to the Inspector General of Tax Administration in 2010, 1,295 inmates fraudulently received first-time homebuyer tax credits, averaging more than $7,000 per inmate. Of this group, 715 were serving life sentences. Mass incarceration increased the size of the American welfare state through the direct and collateral welfare costs caused by the incarceration of family members. The costs of crime and punishment are far greater than the costs of incarceration. There are enormous personal costs for the victims and the families of the perpetrators. Victims lose a lot in dollar terms. Crime victims lose billions of dollars each year. Every year gun violence in the US costs society an estimated $80 billion. Black victims greatly outnumber white victims on a percentage basis. Nearly half of shooting victims are black. Blacks victimize their own race. In 2005, about 93 percent of black victims were killed by blacks.
Mass incarceration harms the country in multiple ways. Simultaneously, it creates more real unemployment, because prisoners are sorely underemployed, labor shortages outside the prison, regularly filled by foreign workers, and new welfare recipients inside the prison, because every prisoner is essentially on full welfare. . It also produces additional welfare recipients outside of prison. Prisoners’ families lack financial support. Prisoners have higher legal and correctional expenses overall and experience more suicide, self-mutilation, gang influence, and racism. Mass incarceration amplifies widespread unhappiness and social disruption. Arguably, the 2010 census will count a couple million prisoners in the wrong place. Uncontrolled government spending made us mistakenly think we could afford mass incarceration. Turns out we can’t. It is a significant drag on our entire economy. More than two million people are in prison, and it takes millions of citizens out of prison, working hard, just to support them.
The good news of history is that nations eventually do what makes economic sense with their prisoners. So a change is coming, because our current systems are wasteful in many ways. The fairly recent Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Silver can help grab needed attention.