Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Big Problem We Ignore

The insanely high rates of incarceration in the United States may be our most unheralded social (and economic) problem - perhaps because there is very little political gain (and much political risk) in taking it on. Nonetheless, last week, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia held a Joint Economic Committee hearing on the subject. According to the committee:
The United States has experienced a sharp increase in its prison population in the past thirty years. From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, the incarceration rate in the United States remained steady at approximately 110 prisoners per 100,000 people. Today, the incarceration rate is 737 inmates per 100,000 residents, comprising 2.1 million persons in federal, state, and local prisons. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but now has 25 percent of its prisoners.
Senator Webb also posted some facts about the prison system in the United States. Among them:
The U.S. prison system has enormous economic costs associated with prison construction and operation, productivity losses, and wage effects. In 2006, states spent an estimated $2 billion on prison construction, three times the amount they were spending fifteen years earlier. The combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections total over $200 billion annually. In addition to these costs, the incarceration rate has significant costs associated with the productivity of both prisoners and ex-offenders. The economic output of prisoners is mostly lost to society while they are imprisoned. Negative productivity effects continue after release. This wage penalty grows with time, as previous imprisonment can reduce the wage growth of young men by some 30 percent...
The prison system has a disproportionate impact on minority communities.
African Americans, who are 12.4 percent of the population, are more than half of all prison inmates, compared to one-third twenty years ago. Although African-Americans constitute 14 percent of regular drug users, they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56 percent of persons in state prisons for drug crimes...
Prisons are housing many of the nation’s mentally ill.
The number of mentally ill in prison is nearly five times the number in inpatient mental hospitals. Large numbers of mentally ill inmates, as well as inmates with HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis also raise serious questions regarding the costs and distribution of health care resources.
As far as I can tell, the hearing didn't get any attention from the press (I learned about it from Ezra Klein's blog), but the Times has an article on the racial disparities in our legal system. The census recently reported that the number of Americans living in college dorms has surpassed the number in prison, but what does it say that this is considered news?

No comments: