The high cost of injustice

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(NNPA)—What if we didn’t incarcerate people who commit non-violent crimes?  Or, if we sentenced them, what if their sentences were reasonable, instead of intolerable?  What if a man who steals a $159 jacket while high gets drug treatment and a sentence of, say, two years, instead of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole?  How much would we save if legally mandated minimum sentences were modified and nonviolent drug offenses were more reasonably imposed?

Marc Mauer of he Sentencing Project says that eliminating more than 79,000 bed years, or the amount of time a prisoner uses a bed in prison, could save at least $2.4 billion.  That’s enough to send nearly a million students to college if the $25,000 covers the cost of attendance (which it does for most state schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities). It could put nearly half a million teachers in underserved K-12 schools. It could restore availability to libraries and parks.  Instead, we spend it incarcerating people, particularly those who are locked up for relatively minor crimes.

The $2.4 billion that the Sentencing Project has calculated may be a low estimate.  According to the Justice Department more than $80 billion is spent on incarceration annually. How much of this spending is unnecessary and could be easily converted to drug treatment and recovery?  Why do we find it so easy to incarcerate people but so difficult to rehabilitate them, knowing that the recidivism rates are high?

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