The 50-Billion-Dollar Question

For decades, "tough on crime" policies contributed to the explosive growth of the prison population -- and the amount of money we spend on locking people up.
04/18/2014 07:19 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

"Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society."

These words, attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, are carved on the outside of the IRS building in Washington, D.C. According to an analysis of Department of Commerce data, in one recent year, federal, state and local governments collected an average of $31,774 for every household across the U.S., to fund a wide variety of programs that are the foundation of a society we all want to live in, from infrastructure and public health to the arts and education. But we also spend more than $50 billion of state money and $6 billion of federal money per year to fund the largest prison system in the world, a system that, in spite of the conscientious work of many in corrections, has uncivilized features: sexual abuse, juveniles sentenced to life without parole (a circumstance found nowhere else in the world), dangerous overcrowding, prisoners held in solitary confinement for years, inadequate care for the mentally ill, and disproportionate effects on minorities and the poor.

For decades, "tough on crime" policies contributed to the explosive growth of the prison population -- and the amount of money we spend on locking people up. The economic climate has finally brought a much-needed pause, a moment for everyday citizens and lawmakers to have a debate about the best use of their tax dollars. Can't we, as a civilized society, find a better use of tax dollars?

Spending money on corrections is unavoidable; there will always be people who need to be locked up for the safety of the entire community. But the current situation in our country is extreme and unprecedented in our history. With 2.3 million people behind bars, we have become the world's largest jailer, at an ever-growing, unsustainable financial cost. In California, for example, corrections spending grew at four times the rate of general fund spending between 1980 and 2010. California's situation reflects national trends -- across the board, we've been determined to keep "bad" people out of our backyards by locking them up for longer periods. But the tough on crime argument has a blind side. We haven't bothered asking ourselves how prisoners will be rehabilitated and re-integrated into society when they come back. As a result, the return on taxpayers' investment has been poor. Two-thirds of the approximately 700,000 prisoners released each year will be re-arrested within three years. That means more crimes -- and more victims.

The time is ripe to greatly increase our use of cost-effective, restorative approaches to justice, like drug courts for addicts, and community corrections options for low-risk prisoners. These alternatives reduce correctional spending at little or no risk to public safety. Drug courts, for example, are both cheaper and more effective than prison time. A Department of Justice study of the nation's second-oldest drug court, in Multnomah County, Oregon, found that it saved taxpayers there $1.5 million a year. Drug courts and treatment are also more likely than prison time to resolve drug addiction problems. Faith- and-values-based pre-release programs, like those administered by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers at no additional cost to taxpayers, also help prisoners address the moral and mental obstacles that prevent them from becoming productive members of society. Not surprisingly, we have found that men and women who understand the impact of their actions, have a strong value system, and have support to become reconciled to their families and communities are less likely to re-offend.

An even better way to build secure communities is to prevent crime before it takes root -- by investing in mentoring, character-building, and educational opportunities for children and young people. According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, children enrolled in government-funded preschool programs were far less likely to drop out of school or be arrested before age 20. Likewise, youth with a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters are far less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or drop out of school. We know that these early interventions help keep young people from ever walking through the prison gates, which is much easier and more beneficial to them than helping them walk away from a life of crime later. As an added benefit, a University of Vanderbilt study suggests that for every high-risk young person who can be steered away from a criminal lifestyle, the state saves between $1.7 million and $2.3 million.

We can also do more to help struggling families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that states spend five times as much on corrections as they do on programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The less we spend on warehousing prisoners, the more we can invest in our children and those who care for them, and the safer our communities will become.

Finally, we need to recognize that mass incarceration is costing us in ways that will never show up on any balance sheet: incarcerated young men and women with untapped potential, convinced they have no future and nothing to contribute; lost earning potential; disenfranchisement of voters -- especially minorities -- with a prison record; 2.7 million children suffering the untold consequences of a parent's incarceration. In a civilized society -- a nation that prizes liberty, fairness, and second chances -- we can do better with our billions. Our taxes should buy more than we've been getting.