November 19, 2019

Incarceration Nation

America continues to lead the world in many areas; however, there is one leadership area for which we should be least proud. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. As of June 2009, 2,297,400 people were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. Diving deeper into those numbers, we may also note that as of that date: 92,854 juveniles were in prison; one in every 18 men in the United States was behind bars or being monitored; and nearly one million of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons (including local jails) were serving time for committing non-violent crimes.

While many states have been coping with budget deficits, Michigan’s ongoing economic trauma and decade-long recession have kept it in the national headlines. Given this economic dislocation, it is perhaps not surprising to note that Michigan currently has 50,000 people incarcerated. Presently, Michigan’s system fits into the total picture with the eleventh highest incarceration rate in the United States – higher than most of its neighboring states and higher than Canada, Mexico, and Central America.  For this fiscal year, the Michigan Department of Correction’s annual budget is $2,100,000,000 dollars.  While perhaps representing a rounding error for the Federal government; that number- $2.1 billion dollars, approaches nearly one-quarter of Michigan’s entire General Fund.

A 2002 national incarceration study showed that among nearly 275,000 prisoners released in 1994, 67.5% were re-arrested within 3 years.  And yet, violent crime was not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States from 1980 to 2003; the prison population was increased primarily by public policy changes causing more prison sentences and the lengthening of time served.  These policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, but instead yielded higher rates of confinement for non-violent offenders.  Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national “war on drugs.”

Through the juvenile courts and the adult criminal justice system, the United States incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world.  This, in itself, has been a subject of controversy for a number of reasons, including the overcrowding and violence in youth detention facilities, the prosecution of youths as adults and the long term consequences on the individual’s chances for success in adulthood.

One of the saddest aspects of our current rate of incarceration is that within 3 years, almost 7 out of 10 “released” males find themselves back in prison. And one of the main reasons for their return is related to difficulties in returning to a “normal” life, especially given that during their “prison experience,” these prisoners were repeatedly exposed and subjected to sexual and physical violence. Today, it is estimated that nearly 70% of inmates in prisons have been assaulted by other inmates. Ultimately, this may lead inmates to place less value upon their own life- as well as the lives of others- when they are released.

Another major factor in the cause of recidivism is the difficulty of a released offender when faced with finding a job, renting an apartment or getting an education. There is no easy answer but there is a direct correlation between poverty, unemployment, and crime in the United States which accounts for the high percentage of African Americans being incarcerated (40% of the prison population in 2009).  A great deal of poverty in the United States is the result of social institutions which contribute to and sustain poverty.  Low quality education received from poorly funded inner-city schools results in few marketable skills leading to low-wage jobs that offer less ability to pay for housing, food, clothing, and medical care. In the end, these realities lead to ever worsening living conditions within communities and neighborhoods- and further funding problems for schools.  As the United States shifts from a manufacturing, industrial society to a service-oriented, high tech society, many of the blue-collar jobs that required little education but paid well are disappearing or have already been outsourced.  For decades now, cities like Detroit have continued to lose many of these former manufacturing jobs to automation or overseas factories.

Looking forward, the problem appears to only get worse.  With over 2 million people currently in prison and with a recidivism (or return rate) of even 50%, we will pass 3 million incarcerated individuals in just a few short years.  To put this in perspective, each day in the United States 200 new jail cells are being constructed; yes, 52,000 new prison cells every year.  Financially, the numbers are staggering. The annual tab for operating our prisons exceeds $32 billion dollars with the cost of incarcerating just one prisoner totaling $22,000. From a time-served perspective, an individual sentenced to 5 years for a $300 theft costs the public more than $100,000, whereas the cost of a life term averages $1.5 million dollars.

While numbers may be thrown about to justify almost any conclusion, these numbers- as well as the critical realities which lay beneath them- seem to cry out and point to an even deeper issue, especially when one considers that the government prescribed poverty level income for a struggling family of four is just $21,200. Using advanced mathematics, that’s just $800 less than incarcerating one criminal.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer

DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati's Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.

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Written by Donald Wittmer
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