‘Tough on crime’ has played well, politically speaking, for decades now. Beginning in the 1960s, the US experienced a surge of violent crime that peaked in the early 1990s, and has been steadily declining since then. Even throughout the recession, when people expected that violent crime rates would bounce right back up, they’ve continued to decline. Responding to voters’ fears about violent crime, the ‘war on crime’ yielded significant dividends, not only at the polls, but for the business of locking people up.
The US currently incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Though I doubt that it has any discernible effect on the rates at which crime occur. Prison guard unions along with jail and prison operators have done well with our obsession with locking up any and all offenders. And while we continue to do so with abandon, the time has already come for us to look at why we lock people up, and how.
The reason being is that it’s very expensive, and as previously indicated, there’s no clear evidence that it works. I’m not arguing for some touchy-feely approach, but when it costs as much to incarcerate one individual for a year as it does to send an undergrad to Yale for a year, we have to look at what we’re doing, and the reasons for it. Case in point: Wayne County is building a new jail. And even before it’s done, it’s running into budget overruns before it’s even finished, along with criticisms that it’s not going to be large enough. We could, in theory, lock up any and all individuals that run afoul of the law, but when penal systems are becoming the second or third largest item in state and local budgets, it’s imperative that we rethink our priorities. We’re never going to run out of people to incarcerate, for any offense, but it’s simply breaking our bank to do so.
Prison should be for those that we fear. The individuals that strike terror into our hearts as to what they may be capable of, based off of past offenses and potential threats they make clearly belong in confinement. The problem is now that we’re locking up people we’re mad at: serial fuckups (pardon the language), if you will. People who don’t pay child support, drug addicts and other non-violent offenders who don’t truly pose a threat to society. Are they wrong to do whatever it is that landed them in the pokey? Absolutely. But when it costs nearly $40,000 a year to incarcerate them, I’m think we’re punishing ourselves financially much more than we are the perpetrator.
We’re never going to get rid of prisons or jails. We shouldn’t. They’re going to always be necessary as long as people behave badly, which will be forever. But we should begin rethinking who it is that we lock up, because the more people we put in the jailhouse, the closer we get to putting local and state governments in the poorhouse.