I want to applaud the students who put the display up in Smith Union
this week highlighting the large number of Americans incarcerated by our
justice system. The fact that a nation of two hundred and seventy million
has locked up almost two million of its inhabitants speaks volumes as
to our society. Only Russia, the nation that gave birth to that monstrosity
known as the Gulag incarcerates a larger percent of its population.
We spend billions every year to incarcerate these people and it begs
the question what is the benefit our society reaps and what is its cost?
Is this really the best way to spend this money?
Now lets address those who applaud this. Crime is down. The drug trade,
and the violent crime associated with it that marked the 1980s, is down.
In fact, over 60 percent of those incarcerated today are in prison for
non-violent drug offenses. Many applaud this, noting the correlation between
drugs and violent crime.
While it is true that a large part of the drop in crime during the 1990s
was due to the Clinton-economic boom, it is also true that part of the
drop in violent crime is from that fact that these people are no longer
on our streets. In this sense, we have succeeded in making society safer.
We refuse to pay the cost as a society, thankfully, of executing these
people who refuse to live by our code. Thus warehousing them seems to
be the only option.
Or is it?
There was another interesting statistic up in the Union. It compared
the average annual cost of Head Start per pupil versus the average annual
cost of incarcerating an inmate. If I remember correctly it was $4,500
for Head Start and $45,000 for the inmate, a ten-fold relation. Now we
all know that it has been statistically proven that kids in Head Start
are much less likely to end up in prison and much more likely to be productive
elements in our society.
This point about education is important and, if you think like me, you'll
anticipate the point I'm going to make about that figure (not that it
doesn't scream in your face or anything). However let's put it on hold
for a second.
That's not who we're talking about. We're talking about the vast majority
of criminals in our prisons today (remember that 60 percent non-violent
drug offender number?). They are there because of poverty and lack of
education. No one wants to grow up to be thief, a drug dealer, a gangbanger,
a drug-user. But when the only opportunity is the remote possibility of
a job at McDonalds, what do you expect people to do?
Now we'll go back to that number above us. It is ten times more expensive
to incarcerate someone than to educate them. Already our society is losing
the opportunity of having almost two million of its members contribute
anything more than license plates. Shouldn't we be smart and spend the
money we use on incarceration more wisely? It sounds like a pretty good
investment to me when, for ten percent of the cost, you can almost-entirely
ensure that you will not have to imprison someone. We need to spend our
money on training and education to ensure that our prison population does
not grow any larger.
We can also shrink our population. Instead of having our prisons be merely warehouses for our undesirables, we could spend just a little more money and turn them into places where we could transform people. Many of our prisons now only turn out hardened criminals. What if they were turning out people with marketable job skills? Most people don't want to be criminals, but if that's all you know how to do, that's what you're going to do. Give prisoners a chance at a better life and most will leap for it and, most importantly, we all will benefit.