Senate Holds Hearing on "Mass Incarceration" Today

Via Sentencing Law and Policy, the Senate's Joint Economic Committee (JEC) will hold a hearing this morning on ""Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?" The purpose is "to explore the economic consequences and causes of and solutions to the steep increase of the U.S. prison population."

The press release is here (pdf).

The United States has experienced a sharp increase in its prison population in the past thirty years. From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, the incarceration rate in the United States remained steady at approximately 110 prisoners per 100,000 people. Today, the incarceration rate is 737 inmates per 100,000 residents, comprising 2.1 million persons in federal, state, and local prisons. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but now has 25 percent of its prisoners. There are approximately 5 million Americans under the supervision of the correctional system, including parole, probation, and other community supervision sanctions.


With such a significant number of the population behind bars, expenditures associated with the prison system have skyrocketed. According to the Urban Institute, “the social and economic costs to the nation are enormous.” With 2.25 million people incarcerated in approximately five thousand prisons and jails, the combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections personnel totals over $200 billion.

The JEC will examine why the United States has such a disproportionate share of the world’s prison population, as well as ways to address this issue that responsibly balance public safety and the high social and economic costs of imprisonment.

You can watch the hearing live through the Committee's webpage.

< Diary Rescue | DOJ's Secret Interrogation Opinions >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Don't forget (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by jazzcattg1 on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 05:30:20 AM EST
    That when the prisoners are released they are also subject to no jobs, housing nor medical/rehabilitation care thereby increasing the recividism rates as well.  The Correction Corporation of America and other state private contractors are more than happy to have the revolving door spinning.  The small towns such as Sterling, Walsenberg, CO. etc. depend on these prisons for survival.  It is just another business with a high social cost.

    Comparison (none / 0) (#2)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 10:10:26 AM EST

    It is just another business with a high social cost.

    Is there any way to compare the social cost to the social benefit?  Having a serial rapist in the slammer would seem to many to be money well spent.


    I think almost everyone would agree that (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by JSN on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 10:26:40 AM EST
    a serial rapist is a threat to public safety but what about someone with 3 ounces of marijuana?

    That's not what I asked (1.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 10:51:00 AM EST

    That's not what I asked.  What I was looking for is a way to compare the net social cost with the net social benefit.  

    Its not a question of wether the outcome is optimal in every individual case.  


    LWOP could average 40 years and the end of (none / 0) (#7)
    by JSN on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 11:56:58 AM EST
    life costs of incarceration are very high so the average annual incarceration costs are probably larger than $40,000 per year (ignoring inflation). So LWOP total incarceration costs are between $1.5 million to 2.0 million plus the cost of the initial trial and subsequent appeals I don't have a very good idea of what those costs would be my guess is about $0.25 million to $0.5 million.

    Do we compensate the victims or their families in case of a wrongful death? If so what would be reasonable amount of compensation? If the level of compensation is sufficiently large from a cost point of view LWOP is the least expensive option in the case of a serial rapist.

    For a drug possession charge there is no compensation because the offender is probably the only person who can be harmed and we don't compensate offenders. If the drug offender is incarcerated (say for two years at $25,000 per year)  they are unemployed and they are not able to support their family and so there are additional ADP and social service costs. So in this case we have costs of $50,000 to $100,000 with no obvious benefits.

    There are many intangible social costs (such as children brought up by a single parent).


    Taking that (1.00 / 1) (#9)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 12:40:02 PM EST

    Taking what you said is 100% true still does not address the cost/benefit issue with regard to the total prison population.  Even in the case of drug offenses, you seem to assume zero benefit to compare to your stated high cost.  However, we know the societal cost of alcohol abuse to be very high.  Without the slammer, is it reasonable to assume zero increase in meth abuse?

    So What? (none / 0) (#10)
    by scarysh*t on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 01:59:23 PM EST
    Abdul, you say "Without the slammer, is it reasonable to assume zero increase in meth abuse?" Setting aside the point that marijuana (which was mentioned earlier) is an entirely different drug from either alcohol or meth (it's a hell of a lot safer and much less addictive than either), so what if there is an increase in meth users?  As long as they are simply taking apart home electronics, drinking mountain dew, and rotting their teeth out, so what if there are more meth users?  The current prohibition regime is not effective in deterring meth use, in fact it's exploding.  The problem is if the meth users go out and rob, rape, or murder someone.  That's why we have laws on the books for those crimes.  Hell, I'd be love it if drug intoxication were simply seen as an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing, rather than a blanket prohibition on all drug use. Seems to me that would be a more effective deterrent.  Any thoughts?

    This if not about MJ. (none / 0) (#19)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 08:40:17 PM EST

    The topic is the "huge" prison population.  Marijuana has little to do with that.  I agree that jail time for weed may seem high, although in this state you can get fined $300 for lighting up a Lucky Strike in a dive bar where everyone els is a smoker.

    The point remains that the assertion that the prison represents a greater cost than benefit is unproven.


    If a kid who sells drugs on a street corner (none / 0) (#16)
    by JSN on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 03:58:10 PM EST
    is put in prison they are immediately replaced by another kid.
    So much for deterrence.

    Why didn't Clinton do anything (1.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Pancho on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 03:06:36 PM EST
    about drug laws in eight years?

    Clinton did plenty (none / 0) (#15)
    by scarysh*t on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 03:46:53 PM EST
    "about drug laws in eight years?".  He tripled the rates of arrest for marijuana offenses.

    Great Minds... (none / 0) (#5)
    by scarysh*t on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 10:31:52 AM EST
    JSN and I must think alike.  As soon as I hit 'post' on my comment, JSN's popped up.

    "avarage cost" (1.00 / 1) (#8)
    by diogenes on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 12:32:46 PM EST
    A lot of the costs of prisons go into salaries; these are high paying jobs which don't require much education.  If you shut down the prisons then welfare costs would go up due to unemployment of guards/cleaners etc.
    Also, many of the five million would be on public assistance or getting disability benefits, since we don't have the capacity to absorb workers who are not as productive as illegal aliens.
    Also, prisons pay their own health costs, and closing the prisons would raise Medicaid/Medicare costs massively.
    Also there would be some increase in crime even if only pot criminals were released; thus more police, costs to victims, etc.  Lots of pot criminals who end up in state prisons aren't college kids who got busted for smoking a joint; they are people with much longer rap sheets.  Behavior before going to prison is the best predictor of future behavior.
    These discussions about cost and cost savings are massively distorted.  You would do better to emphasize the moral cost.

    You would think.... (none / 0) (#12)
    by kdog on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 02:31:51 PM EST
    a conservative minded person would want to get all those prison guards of the state payroll (aka a working dole) and into the private sector.

    PS (none / 0) (#13)
    by scarysh*t on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 02:35:28 PM EST
    And just so you don't think I'm just some damn dirty hippy that only cares about getting high:  Check out this chart.  Now, I'm no statistician, but seems to me that since:

    "the incarceration rate in the United States remained steady at approximately 110 prisoners per 100,000 people. Today, the incarceration rate is 737 inmates per 100,000 residents, comprising 2.1 million persons in federal, state, and local prisons."

    and the rate of arrests for marijuana offenses has increased from approximately 320,000 arrests per year in 1990 to 830,000 in 2006, there might be a bit of a correlation there.  

    The Bureau of Justice Statistics has lots of (none / 0) (#18)
    by JSN on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 07:44:20 PM EST
    CJ System statistics including statistics on corrections. They group offenses into crimes against persons (violent), property and public order and all types of drug crimes. There reports are based on reports from the BOP and the various state DOCs who all have their own way of reporting the offense type distribution for prison inmates. The reports on person under supervision are few and far between so the distributions of offense type for persons on parole and probation are normally not given.

    The use of the term "victimless crime" is a good way to start a huge argument. Burglary can be a person (violent) or a property crime depending on circumstances. The sale of drugs to children or the manufacture of meth when children are present tend to produce very strong emotional responses.

    Drugs is the most serious offense for 55% of the BOP prisoners (about 200,000 of all types of offenses) and I have not been able to find an up-to-date detailed distribution by type of drug offense and race. It appears the 90% to 95% of the BOP drug prisoners are charged with trafficking. the percentage of drug offenders in state prisons varies from state to state with a national average of about 25% to 30%. My best guess is that about 90% to 95% are charged with trafficking.

    About 70% of those booked into jail are released within 24 hours some of them are charged with possession of small amount of drugs (the presumption is they are not dealers). A lot of the persons arrested for more serious offenses are also charged with possession because the use of drugs is part of their life style. If they are convicted on the more serious charge the minor charges are often dismissed.

    Unless you want to repeat all of the work of compilation of state prison and jail data the BJS reports are your best source. For jails the BJS annual snapshot is the sole source of data at the national level.

    If it were possible to collect data from the 100 largest jails it would give a very good idea what the offense and racial profile is and how it is changing in urban areas. If a problem is developing it will show up first in the jails.