The cost of a nation of incarceration
Which is why, not far from Tallahassee, the State of Florida is building a so-called re-entry center for 400 non-violent inmates.
Here they'll cost taxpayers HALF what the state would spend on keeping them in prison.
"This is the smart way of trying to deal with our prison population," said Chief McNeil. "We know that the vast majority of the people in prison are going to return to prison unless we do something different."
Doing something different at the Gadsden County Jail, a few miles away, means teaching prisoners basic skills they'll need when they get out - like how to dress for success, and how to interview for a job.
Wishful thinking? When non-convicts can't even find jobs? Hardliners scoff at the notion that prison education programs lower recidivism.
But criminologists don't. They see education as one tool among many that can help keep people from going back to prison.
At California's formidable San Quentin Prison, inmates are encouraged to enroll in the Prison University Project. In a class on Greek tragedy, every man here took the plays personally.
Henry, an avid reader, says everything that he reads is "one more tool that I have to keep me - I'm not going to say keep me from coming back here, because I'M going to keep me from coming back here."
But here are the statistics, from the U.S. Department of Justice: More than 50 percent of ex-prisoners will be back behind bars within three years.
So, how to keep them from going to prison in the first place, whether by rethinking the old lock-'em-up-throw-away-the-key mentality, or preventing crime with beefed-up policing in high crime areas?
That's exactly what the State of New York has been doing. Between 2000 and 2010, its prison population DROPPED by more than 13,000 - nearly 20 percent. And guess what: The crime rate also dropped, by 21 percent . . . in New York City, by nearly 30 percent.
"No one can really explain exactly why," said Jacobson. "The changing nature of the economy, change in drug use patterns, more targeted policing . . . But one of the things we know going forward, if we want to both continue and drive down crime even further, is that increasing the size of our prison systems will not get you there."
In 2009, the number of inmates in state prisons declined by just under 5,000. It was the first drop in nearly 40 years, since 1972.
Was it merely a drop in the bucket? Or was it the beginning of the end of our epidemic of incarceration?
EDITOR'S NOTE: A transcription error mis-stated the cost per inmate as $47,421 per year. That is the annual cost of an inmate's care in California. The average cost among 40 states surveyed by Vera Institute of Justice is $31,307.
For more info:
- Prison University Project
- Equal Justice Initiative
- Vera Institute of Justice
- Justice Mapping Center
- International Association of Chiefs of Police
- N.Y. Correction History Society (NYCHS)
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