March 12, 2008

1 in 100 Incarcerated

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

A few weeks ago, we learned that one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high, and a number that makes America the world’s number one incarcerator.  The Pew Center’s report says that the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections in 2007, up from less than $11 billion 20 years ago and six times greater than for higher education spending. 

Minorities have been particularly affected by this lock ‘em up statistic:  One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars.  One in 100 black women ages 35 to 39 is in jail or prison compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group.

Although Wisconsin’s overall prison population decreased by 3.2 percent in 2007, it is still at 22,690 as of January 1.  Of that number, about 9,000 come from Milwaukee County.  As chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Corrections, I am concerned that we need to be conscious not only of the cost of incarceration in these times of budget crisis, but also of spending these dollars effectively.  One of the most cost-effective tactics is developing community alternatives to incarceration.

Certainly I believe that the violent criminals—the murderers, the rapists—need to be locked up.  On the other hand, there are large numbers of nonviolent offenders behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and at a much lower cost.  They could also be working and paying taxes, paying restitution, and paying child support.  And they’re less likely to make mistakes that send them back to prison.

As a state, we can be proud of the fact that we’re doing a better job of diverting nonviolent offenders to community programs, but the statistics for those behind bars are still alarming, especially for the minority community.  We in Milwaukee must renew our commitment to prevention and rehabilitation, not only because of the budgetary impact but also because of the human cost.

This is your justice system; these are your prisons. The Gospels' promise of mitigation at judgment if one of your fellow citizens can say, "I was in prison, and ye came unto me," does not contain an exemption

We have a greater responsibility. As a profession, and as a people, we should know what happens after the prisoner is taken away. To be sure the prisoner has violated the social contract; to be sure he must be punished to vindicate the law, to acknowledge the suffering of the victim, and to deter future crimes. Still, the prisoner is a person; still, he or she is part of the family of humankind.

We must confront another reality. Nationwide, more than 40% of the prison population consists of African-American inmates

While economic costs, defined in simple dollar terms, are secondary to human costs, they do illustrate the scale of the criminal justice system. The cost of housing, feeding and caring for the inmate population in the United States is over 40 billion dollars per year

To compare prison costs with the cost of educating school children is, to some extent, to compare apples with oranges, because the State must assume the full burden of housing, subsistence, and medical care for prisoners. Yet the statistics are troubling. When it costs so much more to incarcerate a prisoner than to educate a child, we should take special care to ensure that we are not incarcerating too many persons for too long.