Thursday, January 1, 2009

The High Cost of Imprisonment

A few years ago, a young friend of mine was sent to prison for a year because she tended a few marijuana plants at the home of a couple for whom she babysat. She was an accessory, said the county prosecutor.

This young woman--let's call her Sybill--had a baby and was struggling to make a living while going to school. She smoked a little grass on occasion (I thought she smoked too much, too often, but that's just me), but Sybill never hurt anybody, never stole anything, never even said a bad word about anything. She went to prison without a whimper and served every minute of the excessive sentence without complaint.

When she came out, she went to work and today she owns her own successful business. Prison didn't damage her outwardly (who knows what it did inside?), but it delayed her entry into the contributing portion of our society and it cost each of us a lot of money--and some humanity--to do that to her. If Sybill weren't so tough, so optimistic, so thoroughly courageous, she could have easily given up. Many do and it's a crime against humanity that we warehouse people who break minor rules with draconian jail sentences and don't even try to teach them anything while they are shunted away.

Virginia Sen. Jim Web wants to do something about that. He's taken up the cause of prison reform, the New York Times reports, because he sees the damage our current system has done and continues to do:
  • We have five percent of the world's population and a fourth of its prisoners.
  • According to the Washington Post, Virginia spends 60 percent as much on prisons as on education (thank you former Gov. George Allen).
  • Nationally, it costs more than $30,000 a year to house a federal prisoner for a year.
  • The average cost of a private college in 2008-2009, according to the College Board, is $25,143 a year; a public education costs $6,585 (that's more than four prisoners).
  • States spend $50 billion a year, the feds $5 billion more.
Basically, the simple math tells us something important: it's cheaper to educate people than to imprison them. Much cheaper. Educated people contribute. Imprisoned people soak up resources and result in higher taxes for the rest of us. All those prisons George Allen overbuilt when he was governor would have been far better had they been community college expansions, trade schools, specialty high schools for those who don't do well in traditional institutions. But most prisons don't even bother with educational components, save for making license plates, and how much demand is there for that skill on the outside?

Webb is a Southern conservative Democrat who has gained quite a bit of respect in his brief time in Congress (replacing George Allen, it might be noted) and my suspicion is that only a conservative can help turn around this disastrous public policy. The whole bogus notion of being "tough on crime" by sending more people to lockup has been disproved as an effective weapon time after time, but politicians are terrified to do anything but play to negative emotion. It's time they started working toward the bottom line on this one: an educated population doesn't commit all those crimes, minor or major.

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