The High Cost of Crime While US Law-Enforcement Officials Contend with Over-Crowded Prisons, Businesses and Individuals Spend Billions on Private Security Series: COVER STORY. the High Cost of Crime. Only Article Appearing Today

By Amy Kaslow, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 9, 1994 | Go to article overview

The High Cost of Crime While US Law-Enforcement Officials Contend with Over-Crowded Prisons, Businesses and Individuals Spend Billions on Private Security Series: COVER STORY. the High Cost of Crime. Only Article Appearing Today


Amy Kaslow, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IT'S the late-afternoon "lock-down time" at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup. The male prisoners in the dormitory portion of this medium-maximum-security prison are all on their beds, waiting for the guards to do a scheduled count.

Built for 500 inmates in 1980, MCIJ increased its population twofold just five years later. "Over one weekend, we double-celled the entire place," Warden Eugene Nuth says. That was accomplished by putting bunk beds for two in the already cramped quarters for one. "Then, in 1989 I got a call to put some beds in our gymnasium," Mr. Nuth says. "That added another 150 to the population" and brought the total number up to 1,151.

To peer through the steel grating now surrounding an area that once served as MCIJ's indoor basketball court is to view a symptom of one of the nation's most pressing problems: a largely youthful group of criminals serving time in overcrowded conditions. Most of the men are in for murder, rape, assault, or robbery. Once released, statistics say, most of the men will be back again.

Experts put the recidivism rate at well over 50 percent. That fact, coupled with the youthful criminal population, means that the need for additional prisons is growing steadily. The national average of construction cost per prison bed is $70,000, and the average annual cost of maintaining each inmate is an additional $17,000 per year, says Leonard Sipes Jr., director of public information at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections Services. "We have essentially told the public that we cannot build our way out of this crisis," he says.

No one knows that better than Ted Sexton, sheriff of Alabama's Tuscaloosa County. As overseer of the county's law enforcement, its courts, and its jails, Mr. Sexton has fallen into the wide gap between what the community demands - more police, bringing defendants to trial faster, and more space to accommodate those convicted - and what the tax base will bear. Like most jurisdictions in the United States, for years Tuscaloosa County has been under court order to expand jail space, and for years it has been unable to afford to do so.

"With the increase in violent crimes {during the four years he has been in office}, we're constantly picking up people on murder, robbery, child abuse, sodomy and rape charges," Sheriff Sexton says. The courts cannot process defendants fast enough to keep up with the flow; one of the results is that those awaiting trial do so in jail, taking up precious space and further straining public budgets. "The murder trial we're working on today was four years in the making. {The accused} has occupied space in my jail for four years," Sexton says. Soaring costs, public and private

All these trends, decades in the making, have led to public criminal-justice costs that have soared far beyond what state and federal budgets can bear. But they are only a part of the financial picture.

For nearly two decades the private sector has outspent public sector outlays for security. Calculations of climbing crime costs to the United States economy go as high as $425 billion a year. American individuals and businesses across a broad spectrum spend upward of $300 billion annually on crime prevention, detection, and security. That figure reflects the perception that government is not capable of protecting the public.

At the southern end of Georgia Avenue, for example, a 24-mile stretch that runs from Washington, D.C., to rural Maryland, fortress-like iron bars, steel-mesh fences, and alarm systems are commonplace. Shopkeepers talk about their challenges: some are stoic; others are guarded.

Soon Duk No, owner of D&B Deli, has been selling beverages, bread, canned goods, and cleaning supplies for the past six years. She has a busy lunch counter that lines one side of the store, which is attended by an all-female staff. …

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