05/24/2012 11:19 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Paying the Piper

Several journalists, scholars, and politicians have been looking at the proportion of Americans behind bars, how we got here, and what we might do about it.

Martha Teichner presented a story on this subject on CBS Sunday Morning, titled "The Cost of a Nation of Incarceration" (April 22, 2012). The facts are staggering. In the United States 2.4 million people are currently behind bars. That's approximately equal to the population of Chicago, or about half a million more than the population of metropolitan Houston, in jail. While the crime rate has actually dropped by 40% over the past 20 years, our rate of incarceration has increased to the point that we now have 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. As Fareed Zakaria points out in his CNN report, "Incarceration Nation" (March 30, 2012), this is the highest incarceration rate in the world. Zakaria found that when we count all of the persons in our country who are currently under correctional supervision (prisons, jails, parole, etc.), the number balloons to 7.1 million people. In fact, as Michael Jacobson of the VERA Institute of Justice explained to Teichner, although the United States has 5% of the world's total population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners.

So let's get to the costs -- first the financial. According to Jacobson, it costs on average $47,421 per inmate per year. And in some states (such as Washington, Connecticut, and New York), it costs more: between $50,000 and $60,000. The total spent by United States taxpayers to support this system of incarceration is $63.4 billion, according to Teichner. The cost of incarceration is causing politicians to cross the red/blue divide, as Democrats like Jim Webb of Virginia and Republicans like Orrin Hatch of Utah seek to find a more just and financially sustainable solution.

An even more startling aspect of the incarceration issue relates to race and the devastating cost of incarceration to communities of color. Teichner interviewed Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a professor at New York University, who said that many of the people in prison are there because of drug-related crimes, such as drug possession. But, while African-Americans and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, three out of every four people in prison for drug possession are black. We prosecute persons of color differently. The social cost of this fact is as staggering as the financial cost. One out of every three black men today between the ages of 18 and 35 is in jail or in prison or on parole.

As noted earlier, it costs between $47,000 and $60,000 per year per inmate, and state budgets for corrections have exploded by 900% since 1980. The amount of money states spend on prisons is now, according to Zakaria, six times what they spend on higher education. He zeroes in on California as an example. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons while spending $5.7 billion on higher education. California built, he says, one college campus while building 21 prisons.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? Yes, there is, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for Education, for her book, The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (New York: Teacher's College Press, 2010). And the solution is related fundamentally to the competition many see between the dollars available to incarceration versus those available to education.

Dr. Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, invites us to do the math and to count the mounting costs for neglecting the funding of the education of children, especially the children in our society with the greatest needs and the least social support for success. As she observes:

States that would not spend $10,000 a year to ensure education for young children of color spend over $30,000 a year to keep them in jail. The strong relationship between under-education, unemployment, and incarceration creates a vicious cycle, as lack of adequate investment in education increases the need for prisons, which now compete with the funding available for education.

The spiraling costs of incarceration ironically are eating into the potential funding for the best viable option to solve the problem -- education, says Darling-Hammond.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, it seems clear that we need to focus on putting our funding where it can do the most good, by educating people to compete better in the global economy. This means becoming number one in education again rather than in incarceration. From a perspective of faith, to invest in the education of all our children for rich and fruitful lives is a matter that goes well beyond fairness, well beyond justice; it is a matter of good stewardship of God's creation.