Prison system costs now account for 1 out of every 15 state general fund discretionary dollars. Criminal justice is the second-fastest-growing category of state budgets, behind only Medicaid, and 90 percent of that spending goes to prisons. We are wasting trillions of dollars on an ineffective and unjust criminal justice system. We have more effective tools for preventing and responding to crime than prisons.
Alternatives To Incarceration
Problems like mental illness, substance use disorders, and homelessness are more appropriately addressed outside of the criminal justice system altogether. Services like drug treatment and affordable housing cost less and can have a better record of success. It’s time we got serious about pulling our money out of incarceration and putting it into systems that foster healthy communities.
With almost 50% of prisoners in federal prison for a drug offense and multitudes of severely mentally ill people imprisoned, it is time for the criminal justice system to begin exploring alternatives to incarceration.
Treatment VS. Punishment
There is a disproportionate number of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders in our prisons and jails. The rate of serious mental illness among incarcerated people is two to six times higher than it is in the general population. Over 70 percent of people in jails with a serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder. Most of these people are in jail for nonviolent, low-level offenses, and they do not receive care.
Health Based Solutions
The criminal justice system does not provide appropriate support and treatment to people with substance use disorders and mental illness. These people should be served by other social sectors, such as health and housing. Services like drug treatment and affordable housing cost less and can have a better record of success. Public safety could be better achieved by spending less money incarcerating people and spending more money on health care, education, housing, and jobs programs.
The United States incarcerates almost 25 percent of the prisoners in the entire world despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked up not because of any dangerous behavior, but because they could not pay off a fine or were convicted of a nonviolent drug or property crime. These people are disproportionately poor people and people of color.
Some people behind bars are so frail because of old age or illness that they can barely walk. By 2030, one-third of all incarcerated individuals will be over 55. The recidivism rate of adults over 65 is only 4 percent, yet compassionate release laws are rarely used. We need to rethink the costly practice of keeping these people, who pose little or no risk to public safety, behind bars.
Across the country, in the face of mounting budget deficits, states are more aggressively going after poor people who have already served their criminal sentences and jailing them for failing to pay their legal debts. These modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.