High Costs of Prison Force Criminal Law Changes in Some States

Overcrowded prisons and the high costs of keeping criminals behind bars are two of the most important factors that have recently convinced U.S. state legislators that changes must be made to the American prison system.

A recent report from the BBC highlights some of the absurdities of the American criminal justice system, and the problems faced by each criminal defendant who faces a potential prison sentence.

First, the report observes that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, as more than 2 million Americans are currently behind bars. This roughly equates to the imprisonment of 1 out of 100 American adults.

The state with the highest rate of incarceration, Louisiana, currently has 1 out of every 55 of its citizens wasting away inside prison walls. State prisons in Louisiana are always at capacity, and the costs of full prisoners continue to add up for the state’s taxpayers.

Of course, the figures are much higher for men and ethnic minorities, which is partially a result of arcane sentencing laws that, for example, give much lighter sentences to defendants arrested for distributing powder cocaine than to defendants arrested for violations involving crack cocaine.

And, aside from sentencing disparities for drug charges, some critics argue that prison no longer offers the rehabilitation functions it still purports to serve. According to the BBC, almost 50 percent of people released from prison will find themselves behind bars again within three years of their release.

And the costs of the revolving door into American prisons continue to rise. The BBC claims that, on average, it costs American taxpayers $27,000 to hold a single prisoner for one year. In 2011, the United States spent a staggering $50 billion on overall incarcerations.

Some criminal justice experts derisively label the financial problem of prison as the “million dollar block,” or the use of a million dollars to lock people into a single city block.

The high costs (both social and economic) have led some state legislators to adopt changes. In Texas, for example, legislators recently earmarked $250 million for drug treatment programs aimed at reducing prison populations and, ultimately, saving taxpayers money.

However, such innovative laws are not the norm, as state legislators are more likely to build new prisons (which creates new jobs within the state) than they are to try to reduce the overall prison populations.

No elected official wants to appear soft on crime, so state representatives have all sorts of unhealthy incentives to increase prison populations, rather than reduce them.

However, as the costs of prison continue to rise, and the economy remains in a rut, lawmakers may soon face more pressure to lower prison populations through innovative rehabilitation programs. And this may be a promising bit of progress for a prison system desperately in need of reform.

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