Keeping people behind bars is a huge business, with huge costs associated with the effort. The latest publication issued by the BOP states that on average it costs roughly $40,000 per year to house an inmate. This has been an increasing upwards trend for a number of years, rising from just around $35,000 less than 4 years ago. And what is to show for this increase in costs – a decreasing recidivism rate? Fewer individuals being placed behind bars? Better rehabilitation and opportunities to make a living legally? No, we have actually seen a trend of increasing population behind bars, with worse conditions and overall outcomes than previously.
There are other costs which must be accounted for. The fact that the health of many inmates is worse when they are released than when they came in carries future unfunded liabilities. This will often be paid for by taxpayers, as the individuals who leave incarceration are often unable to find decent paying jobs to support their healthcare themselves. So individuals will be left to rely on government assistance, which is funded by taxes.
Mentally, many inmates are also left worse off than when they came in. This is a cost in terms of lost productivity, as well as mental healthcare which must be provided in the form of counselling and therapy. Punishment often exacerbates issues, such as solitary confinement, which leaves inmates disassociated from social interaction and healthy mental behavior.
The stigmas attached to those convicted of crime also carries a direct cost as well. Studies have shown that we would much rather hire an illegal immigrant (obviously a crime in itself) than hire a convicted felon. This leaves our workforce, citizens of the United States, unable to find opportunities to work for a decent wage, often requiring assistance from the government, again funded by the taxpayers.
This is an increasing burden for the average taxpayer in the United States, and there is hardly anything positive to show for these increasing costs. Crime is not decreasing. Recidivism is not improving. And the budgets are only getting larger. Progress is not being made, we are actually going backwards.
There is an incentive for the BOP and other prison systems to fill their prisons, to keep the population in their control behind bars as long as possible. Budgets increase in the government out of necessity. And there has been zero downward trends in spending on criminal justice for decades. The spending has doubled many times in the last 100 years.
Many more costs are associated with putting people behind bars. Bottom line, we have to start making a change now, as it will only continue to get worse as the situation degrades. There is an opportunity in every problem – what are some ideas of positives that may come out of this situation? Maybe a hard look at the root causes of crime. Maybe going back to the source will reveal where we can take preventive measures rather than respond after the fact. Prisons are not helping people become better citizens. They are making them worse off than when they entered. So what now? Let’s stand up and say we as a population no longer want to bear the costs for something with negative results. Change is needed. Let’s all help make our community a better place, with less crime starting with solving the issues in the criminal justice system first.