A new study is out that documents the failures of the U.S.
prison system. Called One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, it was produced by the highly regarded nonprofit Pew
Center on the States. According to the study, 1 in 31 adults in America is on parole or probation, or is confined in a prison or jail. That adds up to 7.3 million people. Released criminals return to crime at about the same rates as they always have, even though the total spent yearly on corrections is more than four times the amount that was spent 20 years ago.
According to the study, we do not get much for our money. Most of it goes to prisons and jails, and the study suggests that considerable savings could be made, while the effectiveness of the system was upgraded, if the funds were redistributed. Why not educate and supervise offenders, instead of habituating them to an institutional life which leaves them unprepared for a useful existence outside?
About two thirds of the offenders in the corrections system are on probation or parole. Yet 90% of the tax dollars spent on corrections goes to prisons and jails. Prison is a far more expensive option per inmate than supervision, but it has not been shown to be more effective.
It costs an average of $29,000 to keep a prisoner behind bars for a year according to the Pew study, but only $2,750 is spent each year to supervise a person on parole. Probation, an option for criminals who were convicted of less serious offenses, is even less expensive, running $1,250 per year.
If we spent less on prisons and jails, we could easily double the amount we spend on each parolee and probationer, and still be many dollars ahead. Parolees could be in programs that have been shown to work. They could be monitored electronically. Instant drug and alcohol tests could be used to encourage sobriety. Effective training and counseling could be provided for far less than the price of "three hots and a cot."
All this could well produce a much safer country for non-criminals, and would probably upgrade the lives of the criminals' families as well. While corrections spending on prisons continues to grow, funding is stripped from education and health programs that could bring help to the young and blameless, and possibly redirect the course of their lives.
More generously funded probation and parole programs might actually serve to reduce recidivism, re-offending, while freeing up prison cells for longer terms of confinement for violent and dangerous criminals.
The United States prison system fails when it does not deliver value. It fails to reduce recidivism, and it is too expensive. Far too many criminals learn nothing useful from their costly stay. They will be back, and the taxpayer will pay, again, for the prison system's failure.
Source: Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections