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Social ills and the costs of incarceration

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If you count county and municipal jails, at the end of 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, there were 2,226,800 U.S. citizens incarcerated. Another 4,814,200 are on parole or on some sort of release program. At 7 million, give or take, under supervision, we have about 2.3 percent of the total population requiring non-productive, expensive care.

There were in 2008, about 1.2 million federal, state and local police. However, prison personnel don’t seem to be included in the total. Surely, in 2014, there are more in law enforcement that there were six years ago.

Forget the paroled and supervised for a moment, even though they require supervision and represent a significant expense. For the incarcerated, I did a back-of-napkin calculation and determined that at a 3% growth rate, we would have 3.4 million incarcerated in 15 years.  At 4 percent, the number swells to more than 4 million. If you calculate forward the released parolees, you get an overwhelming number of people under supervision at horrendous yearly tax outlays.

The success of the prisons (some municipalities depend on prisons as employers, and it’s said that the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners) seems to be a failure of education specifically and society generally. A huge number of people imprisoned are minorities.

If you include the law-enforcement agencies who deal with the apprehension and warehousing of criminals, the non-productive number of people involved in the overall enterprise becomes downright scary. (“Non-productive” simply means that guards and those in law enforcement do not produce any tangible good for society—they don’t produce goods or services, unless you count watching people through bars as being productive.)

Politicians push things forward difficult matters always, but no country can afford now or in the future to have so much of its society unproductive and “watched” by other equally-unproductive members. As said, if you run the numbers forward, they become catastrophic.

It is cheaper by far for society to educate its children, even if children repeat grades time and again. And it is cheaper to educate the incarcerated well than it is to warehouse them. States that have experimented with quality education for inmates have experienced reduced recidivism.

Gangs, progenitors of crime, seem to be all-pervasive throughout the U.S. Someone smarter than me has to figure out how to eliminate them, once and for all. Maybe society must educate new parents and existing parents–I’m beginning to think parents should have licenses to have children. As crazy as it sounds, one needs a license to drive so that he or she won’t kill others, but aiming an unloved and unwanted child at society is perhaps as dangerous as driving drunk. 

I don’t know the answer to these problems, but I see the outcome clearly. If we don’t focus on education, my fear is that we will become a nation of prisoners and government workers. Who will be productive? Start adding the numbers. If government workers are 7 percent or the population now; if we add prisoners, parolees and guards and parole officers, there are ever-larger numbers of people who are not contributing to society. Prisons and crime are growing while quality education seems to be shrinking.


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