stephanie jones

Jails, Prisons, Incarceration Rates, and Public Cost

In classism, communities, critical literacy, democracy, freedom, justice, politics, prison, racism, social policy on August 16, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I wrote this in response to a story in our local paper about a proposed new jail that would cost approximately $100 million when all is said and done. But the issue is a significant one for everyone in our country – I’ll try to add some hot links to this later so you can access the reports I used to gather information.

New jail “critical”? Let’s look at some facts…

International and national rates of incarceration
Bear with me readers, it might not seem immediately clear why a new jail in Athens-Clarke County (or any other place) is not necessarily what’s critical for our community, but at least by the end of these comments we will have more to consider as public citizens than we do with a narrow-visioned and short-sighted argument for a bigger facility to house those who have become enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

The United States incarcerates more people – and the highest percentage of its population – than any other country in the world. At the beginning of 2008, the U.S. had 2,319,258 people in federal, state, or local jails/prisons; China was a distant second in the world with 1.5 million people incarcerated; Russia in a distant third place at 870,000 people incarcerated. In a surprising twist, countries our government and public often points fingers at for human rights violations are far behind the U.S. in incarceration rates. According to statistics in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. was incarcerating a stunning 760 people per 100,000, Iran was at 222 per 100,000 people, South Africa was at 329 per 100,000 people, Russia – 626 per 100,000 people, Saudi Arabia – 178 per 100,000, and China – 119 per 100,000. What about countries we consider allies and comparable regarding human rights policies? In 2008, Canada incarcerated 116 people per 100,000 and France was at 222 per 100,000 people. Sweden, perhaps not surprisingly, was at a very low 74 people incarcerated per 100,000 people in its population.

The U.S. hit a startling figure in 2008 with 1 in 100, or more precisely, more than 1 in 99.1 people in the country incarcerated with the state of Georgia consistently ranking near the top for incarceration rates in the United States. In 2005, Georgia was ranked 2nd highest when 1,021 people per 100,000 were incarcerated, and according to 2007 data, Georgia had a rate 21% higher than the national average of incarcerated adults per 100,000. Just for those of you wondering, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Oklahoma are always among the top of the incarceration list as well.

Even more shocking than the high percentage of our country’s incarcerated population is the racial and ethnic differences within those numbers. At mid-year, 2008:
a. 727 White males were incarcerated per 100,000 White males
b. 1,760 Hispanic males were incarcerated per 100,000 Hispanic males
c. 4,777 Black males were incarcerated per 100,000 Black males
d. 1 in 355 White women aged 35-39
e. 1 in 297 Hispanic women aged 35-39
f. 1 in 100 Black women aged 35-39

In 2008, a shocking 1 in 9 Black men aged 20-34 were behind bars, and 1 in 15 Black men over the age of 18 were behind bars. This evidence points to serious racism in our country’s incarceration rates, intersecting with classism given that approximately 90% of all people of all races being arrested are living below the poverty level at the time of their arrest.

At what cost?
Readers can ascertain the human, familial, and social costs of the above facts themselves. Here I will focus a bit on the financial costs that have skyrocketed. Between 1987 and 2007, for example, states’ increase in spending on higher education was 21% while the increase in spending on corrections was 127%. In 2008, $1 in every $15.00 of states’ budgets of discretionary money was being used for corrections, and in the state of Georgia, every dollar spent on higher education equaled 50 cents spent on corrections. There is no doubt that in the nearing $100 billion industry of corrections, public priorities such as education, healthcare, parks and recreation, transportation, infrastructure, and so on have suffered.

Studies have also found that child support and restitution payments become almost nonexistent when someone responsible for such payments is incarcerated. So, it seems that we put people behind bars, take away their ability to work and earn money to be responsible for their debts, take away their ability to work and earn money and pay taxes into an increasingly small pool of money, and make it harder for them to find work after they are released because of the stigma of having served time in jail or prison. Even for those people less inclined to concern themselves with the social and moral ramifications of incarceration, everyone can certainly see the extreme economic cost to every single taxpayer and person in our country.

Our local tax dollars

For SPLOST 2011, voters will be asked to approve an $80 million bond sale to pay for the jail expansion and the following November they will be asked whether to pay back the debt with future sales tax revenue (about $20 million in interest). That’s approximately $100 million to make room for even more than Georgia’s already high numbers of people incarcerated.

On the other hand, a mere $40 million will be requested for an expansion of the Classic Center – an investment that would reportedly create “700 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs, and bring $6.6 million into the community annually.” Wow – what could $100 million do for Athens-Clarke County? Surely there are other “big-ticket” items that could generate jobs for our neighbors and community friends who don’t have any prospects right now. Could another big project mean 1,400 construction jobs and at least 400 more permanent jobs?

Experts have said that rather than asking for taxpayer dollars to pay for corrections, it would be better public policy to invest taxpayer dollars into things that are going to transform the economy, such as education and diversifying the economy. In Clarke County we are furloughing teachers and asking families to foot the bill for long and expensive school supply lists. Other counties are cutting field trips altogether and anything else that seems non-essential. If we want to keep kids in school and prepare them to be the innovative leaders we need tomorrow in Athens and far beyond, it is absolutely essential that we not consider a $100 million project to incarcerate more of their family members now and more of them in the future. We could use that money to stimulate our local and regional economy, ensuring there is work for all of us in the community now and in the future. Ensuring work and legitimate economic opportunity will surely result in a decrease of need for a new jail. And we could use the saved money to engage our youth in powerful ways – helping them see education beyond the four walls of school and inspiring them to see how they can be positive change agents in our society. That will take field trips, of course, and lots of other innovative practices that schools don’t have money for now.

Tough questions for Clarke County and others around the country

Given that the increased number of people being incarcerated is not correlated to an increase in crime, but rather change in policies governing admissions and lengths of stay in jails/prisons; Given the horrific differences between the rates of incarceration depending on race and socioeconomic status; And given the evidence of a skyrocketing jail/prison population and an exponentially increasing bill for housing and caring for incarcerated people, it is absolutely critical that taxpayers ask local, state, and national governments some tough questions:
1. What are the county/state statistics on race/ethnicity and incarceration?
2. What are the county/state statistics on socioeconomic status and incarceration?
3. If those statistics are alarming, how does the county/state explain such differences in incarceration across races?
4. If those statistics are alarming, what is the county/state actively doing to prevent the incarceration of Blacks and Hispanics at such high rates?
5. How are zero-tolerance and three-strikes policies impacting the admissions and lengths of stay in jails/prisons?
6. What is the loss in potential local and state tax income for every person incarcerated?
7. What is the cost in relation to child support and retribution payments for every person incarcerated?
8. What are the statistics regarding recidivism and an overall decrease in crime for every person incarcerated?

A new jail, housing more people, will cost Athens-Clarke County far more than the $100 million dollars that will simply get a physical building. The real cost in dollars and cents, as well as the cost to our local public priorities, has surely not yet been calculated.

*Statistics and other information gathered from The National Institute of Corrections, The International Centre for Prison Studies, The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and The Pew Center on the States.

  1. More questions: Are my people fostering an attitude of no self responsibility? Have we lost the values that kept us (people of color) grounded in family and faith? Is the rap industry more destructive than we realize? How has the incarceration rate changed with Obama’s modification of the mandatory crack (as destructive as the drug is) sentencing?

    • Hi Wayne, these are great questions that I think are important to ask and that I’m not able to answer. I can say, however, that historically speaking the criminal justice system in the South (the southern states certainly have the highest incarceration numbers even today with a majority of those incarcerated being people of color) was created on the criminalization of being black. In the post-Civil War years into the 30’s and 40’s this new “system” was used to provide business owners with free and very very cheap labor with the business owners “leasing” the “convicts” who had only been arrested because the business owner told the sheriff they needed more workers. This is well documented in the work of Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. There was no such thing as a “criminal justice system” prior to post-Civil War years, and while there might have been one sheriff or one “judge” in a region, these were not paid positions. Southern states brought in millions each year (4 million dollars was a whole lotta money in 1870, right?) through the “convict leasing” program, and with that money they created paid positions and stable offices. Even when convict leasing, or what federal judges found to be “slavery” in the 1910s, 20s, 30s, and 40s, was finally officially ended as an acceptable practice, those paid positions did not end. In other words, folks who now had a system of paid positions, offices to run, etc. needed a “new” way to generate funds to keep those things in place. Today that means things such as private corporations with for-profit jails and prisons; creating a non-stop flow of incoming arrests who will be charged fines for court appearances, any of their “crimes,” classes they are sentences to take, and per-day charges for jail stays, etc. As long as the criminal justice system is a money-making venture, the means will be created to ensure a steady flow of incoming “convicts.” Historically that has been focused on people of color and criminalizing being “black” and today that continues with only one example being the mandatory sentencing for crack in comparison to relative leniency for cocaine possession.

      Yes, individuals need to think about what kind of society they are creating (violence and misogyny in rap – or in lots of pop music – might be one focus) – but individuals need to also come together and challenge the “systems” that have been in place for a long time.

      thanks for the great comment!

  2. […] if your skin is darker, or you are economically disadvantaged. (See this link also.) Prisons are our largest and most costly social program. How can this be […]

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