Prison is expensive to taxpayers. Facing budget shortfalls, several states are considering changing policies to abolish the death penalty, release non-violent inmates, and change laws that require jail time for certain offenders.
California didn’t have to wait for lawmakers to act. A federal court ordered the state to release fifty-eight non-violent inmates in February, due to overcrowding in California prisons. The release will save the state $900 million a year, but also is expected to save lives. At least one prisoner a month would have committed suicide because of crowding and other health issues, had the courts not intervened, judges determined.
Other states, including Missouri, will consider bills to abolish the death penalty, as prisoners on death row cost more to house. But I expect that more states will consider ways to reduce their prison popoulations. A CNN article Link to Article said today that one in 31 of us did time in 2007. Part of the problem is, prisons have become big business. Much of the corrections system in this country has been privatized, and the state pays these companies to house the prisoners we incarcerate. County jails have also gotten into the business of housing inmates, building bigger and better facilities to reap the state-paid rewards of keeping people behind bars.
Our policies feed this frenzy, requiring more incarceration today than ever before. Today, if you drink and drive, chances are you will do time. If you get caught with recreational drugs, you most certainly will be in jail for a time. Statistics state that most of the people who are being kept by the state are non-violent offenders who would be better off out of the system — and we taxpayers would be better off if these people were out of jail, too.
The cost of incarceration is not just in the cost of housing the inmate. Other costs should be considered, not necessarily monetary expenses. For example, I’ve often heard that people learn how to be criminals when they are put behind bars. I’m certain that if I were jailed for a time, It would change the way I feel about the world in general. When I got out of jail, I might be a meaner, tougher, more dangerous individual. And I’m a pussycat.
Another consideration is what happens to families when they are torn apart by jail. Children who see their parents do time are more likely to become fearful of authority. They may also become offenders, themselves, adding to juvenile crime and costing us more in the long run. In the short run, it costs more to pay for Medicaid and Welfare for children whose parents are in jail, as well as for parents who are unable to work because another parent is in jail and someone has to stay home with the children.
Violent, dangerous, and criminally insane people belong behind bars. The rest of them should be given another way to pay their debt to society. Let the drug users pay fines and get educated about what they are doing to themselves and to society as a whole, and make them pay for this education. But let them stay out of jail so they can work, and keep their families intact, and become better citizens. The same with alcoholics who drink and drive. Make them pay for those locks on their vehicles that won’t let them drive while under the influence.
Abolish the death penalty and keep the killers in the general population with the other killers. Put thieves in prison, but for shorter times. Make them pay back society, literally, by getting a job and paying back the person they stole from. The real sick people, the ones who molest children, who rape and murder and do other horrible things, should be removed from society and confined in such a way they can never get out and do this again. But there are, truly, fewer of those than we believe. The few who are truly criminally insane will cost the most to house. But I believe that if we continue to make prison a business, where a corporation is paid to house our inmates, we will only make a problem worse. Corporations don’t care about people, or whether an inmate is treated humanely. Treating our prisoners inhumanely can cause them to come out of prison with a vendetta that is more dangerous than when they went in.