The Cavalier Daily
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Minimum sentences, maximum costs

ADD THREE more zeroes to that magic 2000, and you've got 2,000,000. But unlike the much-celebrated new year, two million isn't a meaningless and arbitrary milestone. The Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., estimates that sometime in the next few weeks, the United States will reach that milestone with the number of Americans behind bars.

This total is more than twice what it was 20 years ago. And the prison population is growing rapidly: The past 10 years have seen an increase of 680,000 prisoners, more than any other decade in history. The increase was 424,000 in the 1980s and only 119,000 in the 1970s. Not only are more people in prison, but the rate of prison population growth is rising.

While this may be alarming, it shouldn't prompt us to change public policy if it merely reflects an increasingly criminal society. But that's not what it shows at all.

A closer look at the JPI's report reveals that the prison population isn't increasing because there are more criminals or even because we are catching and imprisoning more of them. Rather, we're sending them there for longer periods of time. As a result of structured sentencing laws passed in the mid-1980s that set a minimum prison term for specific crimes, the time criminals serve for a given crime has increased. This has caused an upsurge in the prison population.

But while cracking down on crime may be desirable, those who favor harsher punishments often forget that they come at a tremendous cost.

The JPI estimates that over $41 billion will be spent to operate prisons in the coming year. This doesn't include the money spent on related expenses, such as law enforcement, courts, lawyers or probation officers.

For a comparison, consider that this $41 billion is two-and-a-half times what will be spent on all federal welfare programs combined (which benefit four times as many people as are in prisons).

Increasing prison sentences has had not only financial implications, but practical ones as well. It has become increasingly difficult to find places to put criminals - many of our prisons are horribly overcrowded.

As a result, most states now spend more on building and funding prisons than universities, according to the JPI's report. And this disparity is increasing, with education budgets shrinking at about the rate that prison budgets expand.

We need to evaluate more than how much we would prefer to punish criminals for a given crime. As the prison population skyrockets, we also need to assess how willing and able we are to bear the costs of punishing these criminals more harshly - especially when doing so comes at the cost of other goals that depend on the support of tax money.

To reevaluate our sentencing standards, it is necessary to look specifically at nonviolent offenses. According to the JPI's report, over two-thirds of America's prisoners are in jail for such crimes.

With violent crime, the allocation of resources (money, personnel, support services) to prisons is more easily justified because it goes to prevent criminals from causing physical harm to victims or to punish them when they do. But it isn't as clear that preventing and punishing nonviolent crime is as worthwhile an endeavor.

Some nonviolent crimes - such as different kinds of theft or white-collar crimes - usually take only property from victims. No physical harm is done to them. Other nonviolent crimes - for instance, drug possession and use - don't even have a victim and a perpetrator. Often, the only person the offender hurts is himself.

More so than spending money to prevent and punish rape, assault or murder, the expenditure of billions of tax dollars to fight victimless crime or crimes where material loss is the only damage seems more of a luxury than a necessity.

It's time to take a closer look at the priorities we've established. Our current system sends the message that America cares more about locking up criminals - many of whom have not physically hurt anyone - than it does about educating its citizens or providing financial assistance through welfare programs. Being tough on crime may sound appealing and make us feel safer, but we sacrifice a great deal in the process. We could be doing much better things with $41 billion.

(Bryan Maxwell's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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