There is probably no greater waste of our taxpayer money than the increased incarceration of our population.
The state of Illinois had a prison population of 7,326 inmates in 1970; in 2012, the number has risen to over 48,000. Over that period of time, the state's population has grown only by 12 percent.
The average cost of incarceration is approximately $30,000 a year, and our Department of Corrections (DOC) has a budget of over $1.5 billion.
We would be foolish to think that the cost of incarcerating someone ends when they leave the system. The recidivism rate is as high as 50 percent, so many will go through the system multiple times.
The biggest cost to society, though, comes from incarcerating a young person for a nonviolent offense. He or she will lose earning potential over a lifetime, and we will lose a potentially productive and contributing member of society.
With the difficulties of becoming employed after an incarceration and the loss of time in the job market, there is a loss to society of potential tax revenue over time. In addition, there is a higher probability that the offender and his or her family will rely on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. It creates the cycle of poverty that succeeding generations will struggle to break.
It would seem that the sensible path would be to start looking for alternatives to our tough-on-crime policies and the war on drugs, yet there are forces in play to keep the status quo. No politician wants to be seen as soft on crime. When Illinois' current governor requested an early release for nonviolent offenders, it became a political football. The early release included a small number of offenders with previous convictions for violent crimes for which they had already served time, drunk drivers who were not involved in accidents and a city official who had embezzled money. Many of these early releases were only a few months or weeks away from completing their original sentences. Some of the offenders did commit another crime, but statistically, they would have done so even if they had been released at the later time.
When word of the early release hit the newspapers, the director of the DOC came under fire and eventually resigned. The governor almost lost his reelection over the issue. In a get-tough measure, he cancelled all early release programs, thus insuring that already overcrowded prison populations and the DOC's budget continued to grow, even during a budget crisis in the state. Eventually the hysteria wore down, and it was realized that the early release program did not pose any significant danger to the general society.
There are strong forces behind keeping the status quo in our penal systems. There is money to be made in the prison industry; feeding, clothing and housing a large number of people produces a profit for many companies. For the downstate legislators, this is a jobs program. In some of the rural areas of Illinois, the prisons located there are the largest employers in the area. Closing prisons means a tremendous loss of decent-paying jobs with benefits. No state legislator wants to lose good-paying jobs from his or her district.
Changing the status quo on our policies of incarceration will not be easy. It needs to be tackled from many levels of law enforcement, education, reentry programs and sentencing changes. We also need to be sensitive to how we replace the economic engine for the rural communities that rely on prisons.
This is a complex problem that is not easily solved, but it is one that must be tackled in the coming decade. The current incarceration system is not sustainable. The human and economic toll of mass incarceration affects us all, even if we do not see it in our daily lives. It diverts our tax dollars from other programs, often breeds more violent criminals, and most importantly, inhibits people from becoming productive members of our society.
The current budget crises in the states all across the nation have focused us on how our tax dollars are spent and where they do the most good. Prison reform becomes a higher priority because high incarceration of nonviolent offenders is the least effective use of taxpayer money.
Americans for Democratic Action seeks to educate, train and activate citizens on progressive issues important to their communities. Join us June 15-17 at the University of Illinois at Chicago for our semi-annual convention to learn how to get more involved in the public policy debates that impact you and your community. Expert panels on social justice, women's issues, health care and more will be presented. For more information, call 312-348-6074 ext. 705 or visit http://www.adaction.org/pages/2012-convention.php.