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The Horrendous Cost of Incarceration



It may come as a surprise to many that the United States, the world’s leading democracy, has by far the greatest number of prisoners and the highest rate of incarceration of any country on our planet. At 715 per 100,000 population the incarceration rate is seven times the average rates for France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and is 22 percent higher even than second place Russia, home of the Gulag Archipelago. More alarming still, our total federal, state and local prison population at 2,019,234 is nearly five times the entire prison population of the European Union countries and the United Kingdom combined.

We are paying a heavy price for our definition of criminal acts and for mandatory sentencing. The average annual expense per prisoner in the U.S is estimated at $36,000 to $44,000, depending on how such costs are calculated. Even at the lower estimate, the total prison system may place a burden on taxpayers of as much as $72 billion annually. In Connecticut from 1985 to 2000, fueled by draconian drug laws our prison population tripled, reaching a high of 17,500. Though slightly lower today, still the annual cost of the criminal justice system is $2 billion and amounts to 11 percent of the state budget. And, only one-third of the prison population serves time due to violent crime. A quarter of all convictions are for drug offenses.

Adding to these hard numbers, the collateral human cost of lost productivity and the impact on the families of prisoners is incalculable. Inmates can contribute little or nothing in support of their families and children, who are often left destitute. According to research by the Pew Charitable Trust, there are 2.7 million children under eighteen nationwide growing up with a mother or father behind bars. The emotional and psychological trauma of this separation increases the risk of juvenile delinquency. It is a tragic fact that the children of jailed offenders are more likely to end up in jail themselves, creating a generational cycle of crime and incarceration.

Once released, offenders bear the stigma of an ex-con. Challenged to find work and even lodging, they are highly vulnerable to repeating the associations and actions that put them behind bars in the first place. Violation of parole is the No. 1 cause of offenders returning to prison. Within two years of release, 67 percent will be rearrested and 48 percent of these will go back to prison. Addressing and solving this problem of recidivism is a major mission of Family ReEntry, the Bridgeport based public/private organization dedicated to helping former offenders find their place with family and community and lead productive lives.

To this end Family ReEntry initiated Fresh Start, an ambitious program to help those ex-offenders who wished to change the pattern of their lives. Inmates were selected who were willing to accept mentoring, often from other ex-offenders who had successfully adopted a new path for their own lives. Fresh Start offers job training to former offenders and help in finding employment. According to Yale University research, the program was successful in reducing recidivism by 34 percent, saving taxpayers millions in prisoner expense at a modest cost of only $2,300 per client. These programs were enhanced by the launching of Fresh Start Enterprises with the initial support of a federal grant, and with the purpose of creating employment opportunities for ex-offenders by contracting out their services.  While its goal was to be self-supporting through labor contracts, the operation could not be sustained without the federal support that was no longer available. Family ReEntry is working to develop a new sustainable business model, and it is hoped that this important program can be reinstated with public and private funding.

Meanwhile, other essential Family ReEntry programs continue to mitigate the need as well as the effects of incarceration on families and children. The pervasive problem of domestic violence is a major basis for arrests and convictions. The FBI has reported it has taken the lives of an average of four women a day in this country. Family ReEntry handles as many as 1,100 domestic violence cases per year, steering offenders away from prison and into a mentoring system. Intervention has been responsible for a significant reduction in new sentences as well as a lower incidence of recidivism.

Some of the most critical programs are directed to children at risk. Mentoring and supportive services serve approximately 200 youths, including gang members, and have demonstrably improved children’s behavior, academic performance and reduced their involvement with the criminal justice system. All of these programs help create better and safer communities through crime prevention while reducing the economic and social costs of incarceration.

There are far too many in prison due to non-threatening, nonviolent crimes. It is interesting to note that New York State is selling off surplus prisons, its inmate population having fallen from a 1999 peak of over 71,000 to only 55,000 today. According to the New York Times, this is largely due to new programs allowing early release of nonviolent offenders and the dismantling of its strict drug laws. We believe it is time for Connecticut to follow suit.

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