The Cost of a Nation of
Nationwide, the numbers
are staggering: Nearly 2.4 million people behind bars, even
though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually
dropped by more than 40 percent.
Is it fair to call the United States the "incarceration nation"?
That's what some experts say. And even some veteran law
enforcement and correction officials think something's gone
wrong. Our Cover Story is reported now by Martha Teichner:
Video Posted April 23,
Gadsden County Jail near Tallahassee, Fla., there are bunks, and
mattresses on the floor.
The jail has a capacity of about 150 inmates, but there are
presently 230 inmates in the facility right now.
Walter McNeil, president of the International Association of
Chiefs of Police, sees the same story everywhere he goes in the
In one "pod" of Gadsen jail, in which there are 24 bunks, there
are 28 inmates - and by the time the weekend comes, there will
be five or six more inmates.
That's nothing compared to California. Overcrowding was so bad
there, the U.S. Supreme Court called it "cruel and unusual
punishment," and last May ordered the state to cut its prison
population by more than 30,000.
Nationwide, the numbers are staggering: Nearly 2.4 million
people behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime
rate has actually dropped by more than 40 percent.
"The United States has about 5 percent of the world's
population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners - we
incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any
country on Earth," said Michael Jacobson, director of the
non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice. He also ran New York
City's jail and probation systems in the 1990s.
A report by the organization, "The Price of Prisons," states
that the cost of incarcerating one inmate in Fiscal 2010 was
$47,421 per year. "In states like Connecticut, Washington state,
New York, it's anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000," he said.
Yes - $60,000 a year. That's a teacher's salary, or a
firefighter's. Our epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers
$63.4 billion a year.
The explosion in incarceration began in the early 1970s - the
political response to an explosion in urban violence and
increased drug use.
"So 'Tough on crime,' 'three strikes, you're out,' 'Let 'em rot,
throw away the key' - all that stuff resulted in more mandatory
sentencing, longer and longer sentencing," said Jacobson.
But nothing came close to the impact of the war on drugs. When
it was announced in 1971, fewer than 40,000 people were
incarcerated for drug offenses; now, it's more than half a
And here's the elephant in the room: Blacks use drugs at the
same rate as whites, but go to prison more - nearly 3 out of 4
people incarcerated for drug possession are African-American.
"It's emblematic of the way in which race is contributing to
mass incarceration," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of
the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, and a professor at New
York University Law School.
"How do you answer people who say, 'Well, the people who are in
prison are bad people, and if they happen to be
African-American, it's because there's a higher crime rate in
the neighborhoods where these prisoners have come from'?" asked
"I'd say for most, for many offenses, it's simply not true,"
replied Stevenson. "Drug use is not a problem unique to the
African-American community. This problem is as great a problem
in white communities, affluent communities, [where] we prosecute
"In communities of color, you see devastating consequences as a
result of our policies. Now, one out of three black men between
the ages of 18 and 35 is in jail, in prison, on probation or on
Whatever the crime, if you go to the Equal Justice Initiative
website, you'll see the 70-plus 13- and 14-year-olds sentenced
to life in prison without parole in this country. Nearly
two-thirds are children of color.
Bryan Stevenson appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court last
month to argue that, even in murder cases, sentencing kids that
young to die in prison is cruel and unusual punishment.
"We can't hide from these problems much longer, we really
can't," Stevenson said.
U.S. Senator Jim Webb - ex-Marine and Vietnam War hero -
couldn't be called soft on crime. The Democrat from Virginia has
tried and failed to get Congress to address the comprehensive
reform he is convinced can't wait.
"This is not a political winner, but it's a leadership necessity
in my view," Webb said. "If you are a violent career criminal,
you deserve incarceration. . . . But we can be much more
adaptive in areas of non-violent crime, in length of sentences,
and particularly in what we do with people when they begin to
In a bad economy, just the expense of incarceration is beginning
to create converts among state legislators faced with disastrous
budget problems. In 2011 alone, 15 states passed significant
sentencing reform legislation. Democrats and Republicans united
in their determination to cut prison populations.
Which is why, not far from Tallahassee, the State of Florida is
building a so-called re-entry center for 400 non-violent
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Was it merely a drop in the bucket? Or was it the beginning of
the end of our epidemic of incarceration?