If you, like me, believe that prisons should be able to punish offenders while still preparing them for a productive, crime free life once they are released, then you must also believe that prisons are failing. And, they’re not just failing: they are costing the larger society billions of dollars that could be put to much better use.
Annual prison spending has risen from $10 billion to $52 billion during the last 30 years. Recent data from the Pew Center on the States shows that the additional money is clearly not going to prisoner rehabilitation efforts. More than 40 percent of inmates eventually return to prison, most of them within three years. The recidivism rate hasn’t changed much in a decade and is a strong sign that prisons aren’t doing the best job they can to prepare offenders for life outside of prison.
States around the country are grappling with fiscal uncertainty and are forced to cut programs that serve the poor and elderly in order to balance their budgets. These tactics, however, do not take into consideration the needs of the people, nor do they protect the long-term financial health of the state.
What does? Investing in education. Many, if not the majority, of prison inmates did not graduate high school. By catching students before they fall through the cracks and reducing the number of dropouts will, over time, reduce the prison population and save the states money. Sending low-level drug offenders to rehab instead of prison will also help. It’s less expensive to rehabilitate an addict than it is to incarcerate them. Going this route allows states to help those who need it and reduce their prison costs at the same time.
Critics would say that this approach is soft on crime. No one is saying that criminals should not be punished. It’s just more beneficial to everyone involved, if we punish them smartly.
To be fair, this strategy is not going to save money overnight. The goal is to create a plan that is sustainable, one that will bring huge returns over the long term. Reducing prison costs by reducing incarceration rates saves money so governments don’t have to cut services like Medicaid and Medicare that the most vulnerable in our communities rely upon.