Prison Statistics: Where to Cut Costs?

The Pew Center on the States is reporting that for the first time in U.S. history more than one out of every 100 adults is incarcerated (2,319,258 Americans). The report also said the states spent more than $49 billion on corrections in 2007, with the average annual cost per inmate at $23,876.

A quick look at the Bureau of Justice Statistics website shows that (as of 2004) only 52% of all incarcerated individuals were in prison for violent crimes. The other categories were Drugs (20%), Property (21%) and Public Order (7%).

Therefore, only about half of all incarcerations are absolutely necessary to maintain order and protect the public (i.e., to incapacitate violent offenders). Of the remaining crimes, half are for non-violent crimes against property (violations of economic rights) and the other half are for trade or use of blackmarket substances.

Assuming, for these purposes, that the costs and crimes are evenly spread across the States, ending the drug prohibition would eliminate approximately $10 billion in prison costs.

It could be argued that, since legalization would make the career path of the "dealer" obsolete, those individuals may be likely to veer into some other criminal venture. However, legalization would more than make up for that by creating a reduction in the total amount of crime, especially violent crime. Since legalization would render gang territoriality irrelevant and reduce gang funding, and since drugs would become more affordable, less collateral crime would be committed to fuel both sides of the drug trade.

Additionally, if we want to save even more money, we could treat the economic, non-violent criminals as being candidates for deterrence rather than incapacitation. For the least disruptive of them, we could institute a punitive garnishment of wages, or force restitutionary labor, or enact some combination of these methods. Then we might save another couple billion. The more disruptive convicts could still go to prison, but perhaps be segregated from violent offenders, in order to prevent non-violent criminals from being exposed to an education and socialization in violence.

This plan would cut incarceration costs by at least a third and probably reduce overall crime. What do you think?