News Stories

The Real Cost of Jail

It's sometimes hard to determine the REAL cost of things.

The United States has the world's highest rate of jail incarceration, perhaps because the private the private prisons springing up across the country provide local jobs. But if the prison population shrank to what it was twenty years ago, we could spend more money PREVENTING crime, rather than guarding convicted criminals.

New York City has already done this. Its incarceration rate was once one of the highest in the country, but now it has plunged well below the US average, while crime in the city has fallen by more than 75%. Whatever has made New York the safest big city in America, it has not been locking up more criminals.

In the January 26th edition of the New York Times, John Tierney quotes criminologist Michael Jacobson as saying, "The precise causes of New York's crime decline will be debated by social scientists until the Sun hits the Earth, but the 50,000-foot story from New York is that you can drive down crime while decreasing your jail and prison population--and save a huge amount of money in the process."

The 2.3 million people behind bars in America, a fifth of the world's prisoners, cost taxpayers more than $75 billion a year: Policies that were intended to reduce crime have instead led to a historic, if largely unrecognized, shift in priorities away from policing.

Twenty years ago, local policing accounted for more than 40% of spending on crime, while 25% went to prisons and parole programs. But since 1990, nearly 35% has been sucked up by the prison system, while the portion of criminal justice spending for local policing has fallen to slightly more than 30%. Tierney quotes criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman as saying, "The United States today is the only country I know of that spends more on prisons than police. In England and Wales, the spending on police is twice as high as on corrections. In Australia it's more than three times higher. In Japan it's seven times higher. Only in the United States is it lower, and only in our recent history."

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