05/26/2011 04:59 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2011

Incarcerating Our Budgets

There is something inherently American in the desire to be number one. Even with a lagging economy and seemingly endless Mideast wars, Americans are still committed to the idea of "American exceptionalism." Despite certain areas with poor global standing including education and energy, Americans remain persistent that with the right public policy Uncle Sam can lead the world in anything. Yet, while this motivation to be on top is healthy, on the issue of crime and incarceration, the United States can only hope to move towards the bottom.

The American penal system is broke in every sense of the word. Over the last two decades, the nation's prison population has tripled to 2.3 million. Most startling is the fact that the United States consists of just 5% of the world's population, but incarcerates nearly 25% of the world's criminals. While America struggles to keep pace with other industrial nations in terms of high school and college graduates, the U.S. remains the world leader in producing prisoners. No one is advocating for placing dangerous criminals back on the street, but 20% of the incarcerated are nonviolent drug offenders.

As we battle over slashing education or Medicare spending, more attention ought to be directed at dealing with the unsustainable costs of the American prison system. A total of 70 billion dollars was spent in 2010 to maintain the world's largest prison system. A recent study by the Pew Research Center determined that since 1987, government spending on corrections has grown a 127% in comparison to a meager 21% increase in educational funding. If a nation's budget is a symbol of its priorities, Uncle Sam is in trouble.

In an era of poll tested language and legislation, proposed government initiative on reforming criminal justice appears to be a third rail of politics. Any attempt at serious reform is likely to be met with Willy Horton-esque commercials designed to incite "security moms" and "NASCAR dads." While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appear never-ending, the "War on Drugs" has lasted far longer and has proven just as costly. The time has come to transition from "tough on crime" to "smart on crime."

The fundamental role of any government is to ensure the safety of its citizens, but one can only question how Rousseauian was the arrest of Dee Star. After unknowingly selling $30 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop, Star was handed a 12-year prison sentence for her first felony in Oklahoma. While legalizing narcotics remains only the goal of Ron Paul supporters, maintaining the costly status quo is in no one's interest either. There are equally (if not more) effective measures to punish and reform nonviolent offenders. Studies have pinned government costs on an individual inmate at $29,000 per year compared to $1,250 for probationers and $2,750 for parolees. Despite this excess in spending, the rate of recidivism has remained relatively stable in recent decades.

Managing Director of the Pew Center on States, Sue Urahn argues, "States are looking to make cuts that will have long-term harmful effects. Corrections is one area they can cut and still have good or better outcomes than what they are doing now." Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations and offering more programs for early release based on educational and vocational rehabilitation are reforms that reduce both criminal recidivism and spending.

To truly understand the ultimate costs of our current incarceration system, one only needs to travel to Jackson, Mississippi. In an effort to meet a growing deficit, the Mississippi legislature passed a budget cutting $14 million from K-12 education funding. However, these same "fiscal hawks" refused to pass a bill in February that would have cut the states prison population in half by 1,000 inmates. This one reform would have resulted in more than $8 million of savings through 2013 for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. As the Jackson Public School District deputy superintendent Michael Thomas notes, "The only place we can go [for cuts] is teachers. It's an extreme challenge within the district to find dollars."

Texas has (to the surprise of many) proven to be the poster boy for effective and meaningful prison reform. The thought of the Lone Star State may conjure up images to most of intransient Tom Delay-like politicians, but Texas has produced bipartisan reforms designed to alleviate the heavy financial burden of an often-punitive legal system. In 2003, the legislature stipulated all nonviolent drug offenders arrested with a gram or less of narcotics be sentenced to probation instead of jail time. Two years later, the state acted to significantly increase funding for the state's probation system. Lastly during 2007, they opted against constructing more prisons, in favor of establishing more proven community correction approaches such as drug courts. These reforms have estimated to save the state $2 billion over the past 5 years. Such rehabilitory efforts have not only cut costs, but also significantly helped in reducing the crime rate in Texas.

Even with a high number of incarcerations, America's prosecutors have ironically failed to detain those who truly have endangered our society. In three years, the government has not charged any of the major figures responsible for the ongoing financial crisis. Despite sparking an economic recession that resulted in massive foreclosures and job losses, executives from AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs have yet to see the inside of a court room. If only the Feds had shown the same watchful obsession with mortgage-backed securities as they have with marijuana, the country would certainly find itself in a better spot today.

While no expert on personal conduct, Arnold Schwarzenegger was right in recently questioning a country "that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns." Before we send education and healthcare funding to the budgetary guillotine, it's time to truly examine certain common sense prison reforms that can free up state expenditures. Lets move America away from its number one ranking in incarceration, so Uncle Sam can lead the world in areas that truly matter.