The Extravangance of Imprisonment Revisited

By Vuong, Linh; Hartney, Christopher et al. | Judicature, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Extravangance of Imprisonment Revisited


Vuong, Linh, Hartney, Christopher, Krisberg, Barry, Marchionna, Susan, Judicature


In his incisive essay of 1975, The Extravagance of fmprixmmrU, then-National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) President Milton Rector eloquently articulated a central position of the organization: there are far more cost-effective and humane responses to nonserious crime than imprisonment.

Alas, mass imprisonment has steadily grown even from before Rector's essay. The U.S. currently has the highest rates of incarceration in the world. Decades of "get tough on crime" laws have steadily increased prison and jail populations, resulting in ballooning costs and prison overcrowding. As of 2006, the U.S. imprisoned over 1.6 million of its people at a cost of $69 billion, an increase in cost of over six times during the prior quarter century.

Many elected officials, policymakers, and the general public are supportive of alternative sentences to incarceration for nonserious, nonsexual offenders. Reasons for supporting alternative sentences include lower costs, the potential for rehabilitation, health and safety issues associated with overcrowding, and prison and jail being too harsh a punishment for certain offenses. Having the option to serve time in one's own community allows offenders to stay connected to the support systems that often play a large role in reducing future criminal behavior. When alternatives are implemented appropriately, they serve the dual purposes of rehabilitation and punishment, while also maintaining public safety.

This article analyzes prison and jail populations in the U.S. as a whole and in four key states - California, Florida, New York, and Texas - to determine 1 ) how many prisoners are nonserious offenders and what it costs to lock them up, 2) what proven effective alternatives are in use and what they cost, and 3) what savings could be realized if a portion of the nonserious offenders were sentenced to alternatives instead of prison and jail.1

Of every 100,000 persons in the U.S., nearly 2,500 are in some way involved in the criminal justice system. In 2008, there were 1.4 million state prisoners, 785,000 jail inmates, and another 5.1 million on probation or parole.* Overall, 19 state prison systems were over capacity and 19 others were approaching capacity/ The number of annual admissions to state prisons increased by 18 percent between 2000 and 2008.4

As prison populations grow each year, governments dedicate larger budgets to corrections. In 2006, justice-related expenditures for federal, state, and local governments totaled $214 billion. Corrections accounted for $69 billion, law enforcement $98 billion, and judicial $46 billion - an overall increase of more than six times in the past three decades.3

In April, 2009, NCCD commissioned Zogby International to conduct a national public opinion poll about American voter attitudes toward our nation's response to nonserious, nonsexual crimes.6 The results showed that striking majorities favor using methods other than incarceration. These findings supported earlier NCCD/Zogby polls that showed public support for rehabilitative programming both inside and outside of secure facilities.7

This article presents estimates of cost savings that could be realized if a portion of nonserious8 offenders were sentenced to alternatives rather than jail or prison. It examines four evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and the potential savings they could garner nationally and in four states - California, Florida, New York, and Texas. These states are the four most populous in the country and those with the greatest numbers of prisoners. The goal is to present a feasible policy alternative, one that might be supported by most stakeholders - -justice and law enforcement representatives, elected officials, and the voting public.

A significant portion of prisoners committed crimes that were not violent or sexual, and that did not involve serious property loss or damage. Many of these individuals can be safely supervised through alternative means and still serve a sentence that fits the seriousness of their crime.

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