Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy links to a NYT article on a new study showing that 1% of the adult population of the U.S. is in jail. That's sobering. The racial disparity is also sobering:
Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars but that one in 100 black women are.
Also sobering, the staggering cost of it all:
Now, with fewer resources available, the report said, “prison costs are blowing a hole in state budgets.” On average, states spend almost 7 percent on their budgets on corrections, trailing only healthcare, education and transportation.
In 2007, according to the National Association of State Budgeting Officers, states spent $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections. That is up from $10.6 billion in 1987, a 127 increase once adjusted for inflation. With money from bonds and the federal government included, total state spending on corrections last year was $49 billion. By 2011, the report said, states are on track to spend an additional $25 billion.
It cost an average of $23,876 dollars to imprison someone in 2005, the most recent year for which data were available. But state spending varies widely, from $45,000 a year in Rhode Island to $13,000 in Louisiana.
Presumably Louisiana's numbers are skewed by selling off the organs of death row inmates or something.
I'd like to see the breakdown of why these people are in jail. In particular, I'd like to see what percentage is attributable to drug use and drug distribution. (In 2004, I see that it was 21% of state inmates and 55% of federal inmates — though that probably doesn't include county jails). I think such statistics could help us take a small step towards the once-unthinkable goal of a serious discussion about drug criminalization in this country. 1% is a vast percentage of the nation's adults to jail, and it requires another vast percentage (I'd guess on the order of another 1%) to be involved catching them, processing them, and watching them.
Let me be clear I'm being a heartless-style libertarian here and not a warm-and-fuzzy liberal. I don't want to spring people from jail out of some sense of Power to the People, at least not predominantly. I just think it's a bad way for society to use its resources. I'm happy with the violent criminals and persistent property offenders staying longer in space vacated by the druggies. And I don't, for instance, agree with this guy quoted in the article:
“We have 5,500 D.W.I offenders in prison,” he said, including people caught driving under the influence who had not been in an accident. “They’re in the general population. As serious as drinking and driving is, we should segregate them and give them treatment.”
Well, no. If they're in prison, they're almost certainly repeat offenders. Treatment didn't work the first time. I'd rather have them in jail and not driving.
Eugene Volokh offers a fascinating riff on this in the form of statistics strongly suggesting that at least some of the surge in incarceration is explained by a much lower rate of institutionalization of the mentally ill.
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