The Fiscal Burden Of Incarceration And Recidivism

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With over 2.2 million prisoners, the U.S. prison system costs taxpayers $39 billion annually. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, and the average prisoner costs taxpayers up to $60,000 annually. Combating high incarceration and recidivism rates is, therefore, imperative to decrease the fiscal burden on taxpayers.

The issue of high incarceration and recidivism rates burdening taxpayers has origins in the Nixon administration and strengthened during the tough on crime era of the 1990’s. These decades mark the inception of the War on Drugs, and consequently higher crime rates. The days of being “tough on crime” and engaged in a “war on drugs” are in the past and advances are already being made to decrease incarceration and recidivism rates.

Since 2001, 30 states have increased the dollar threshold for felony theft prosecutions. This prevents low-level offenders from acquiring a felony record, which could prevent them from finding employment. As a result, crime can be prevented, fiscal burden reduced and labor force participation improved.

Texas is indicative of success in lowering the prison population. After the state’s reinstatement of capital punishment in the 1970s, crime, incarceration and execution rates were at an all-time high. In recent years, Texas built treatment facilities to deter unnecessary incarceration where treatment is needed instead of building a new prison to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners. This decision saved the state over $3 billion.

In contrast, Illinois has a 45 percent recidivism rate, with each event of return to prison costing $40,987 to $118,746, all of which is paid for by taxpayers. Moreover, during a five-year period, recidivism alone costs the state of Illinois $16.7 billion. The struggle to find employment after being released from jail knows no state boundaries; in conjunction with a criminal record, former inmates face occupational licensure laws which provide further barrier to entry.

During incarceration, prisoners often have the opportunity to learn valuable skills and trades. Many former prisoners cannot apply their acquired skills in the labor force; a substantial amount of jobs related to these skills such as those in HVAC, haircutting and welding are subject to strict licensure laws prohibiting those with criminal records from finding employment.

As more states follow Texas’s example, the short- and long-term benefits to taxpayers are considerable. Not only will fiscal burden decrease, but more skilled workers will have access to the labor force. In addition to the reforms mentioned above, bail reform, more access to drug courts, diversion programs and an increase in opportunity for parole should also be considered.
Diversion programs significantly cut costs and reduce recidivism in Texas. In 2011, incarcerating one inmate cost $50.79 per day, while enrollment in diversion programs costs $10 per day while fostering reduction in recidivism.

Drug courts cut costs and reduce recidivism in Kentucky; the state saves $2.72 in incarceration costs for every dollar spent on Drug Court graduates.

Criminal justice reform, if not needed for humanitarianism, is necessary for the fiscal well-being of all taxpayers. Fiscal and economic benefits will necessarily result from states following states on the forefront of criminal justice reform. Reforming the criminal justice system will allow for greater financial and individual freedom.

Alyssa Mediate is a graduate of Northwood University currently pursuing a Masters in Political Communications from Regent University.