On April 22 as viewers of the highly respected CBS television show Sunday Morning sipped their coffee, perhaps the jolt they received wasn’t from the caffeine but came instead from the startling statistics the lead story, “Incarceration Nation,” threw at them.
CBS correspondent Martha Teichner painted a disturbing scenario for those Americans unaware of America’s reputation as the “Incarceration Nation.” For those who have long known that America incarcerates nearly 2.4 million people, the segment was also disturbing, because for all the work that has been done to bring about criminal justice reform, the U.S, with five percent of the world’s population, imprisons 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners.
The Sunday Morning segment included interviews with International Association of Chiefs of Police president Walter McNeil, and the Vera Institute’s Michael Jacobson, both who spoke about the need for timely reform measures.
Teichner and Jacobson discussed the high cost to taxpayers. Americans pay $63.4 billion a year to support the country’s criminal justice system. The average cost per prisoner, per year is $47, 421, but according to Jacobson,in states such as Connecticut, New York and Washington the cost is between $60,000 - $80,000 annually. Teichner noted that $60,000 is the approximate yearly salary of a teacher or a firefighter, leaving viewers to ponder how much more educational opportunities the children of this country could receive, or how many jobs in the public service sector could be added if the money poured into keeping people incarcerated could be used in a more productive manner.
How did America’s criminal justice system get so out of control? The CBS report related that the beginning of America’s move toward mass incarceration unfolded in 1971 when President Nixon declared an “all out offense” against drugs. In that year approximately 40,000 individuals were locked up for drug offenses. As the war on drugs gave birth to the “tough on crime” sentiment, the number of people grew to almost 500,000 today.
The rise in convictions for drug offenses has a devastating effect on African- American communities. Although blacks and whites are about equal in the rate of drug use, Teichner offered this astonishing fact: Three out of 4 people sentenced for drug possession are black. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative told Sunday Morning that “Drug use is not a problem unique to the African -American community.” It is how African-Americans are prosecuted more harshly that gives the misconception that African-Americans consume or sell more drugs than their white counterparts, claims Stevenson. One in three African Americans aged 18 – 35 are in jail, prison, or on probation or parole.
Although 50 percent of ex-prisoners wind up back behind bars within three years, the Incarceration Nation segment provided a glimmer of hope for the future. The Teichner report relayed that in 2011, 15 states brought about”significanr sentencing reform, and it was a bipartisan effort. Florida is opening a reentry center for 400 inmates that will provide classes to teach inmates skills such as resume writing and interviewing techniques and will do so at half the cost of incarceration at a prison.
Some prisons, such as San Quentin in California, are strongly promoting higher education for inmates after studies prove that formerly incarcerated persons with a higher education are less likely to recidivate than those with a lower educational level.
As Teichner closed her segment on America’s shameful rate of imprisoning its citizens, she reminded viewers that locking people up and throwing away the key is not the way to increase public safety. New York State, she said, reduced its prison population by 13,000 inmates between 2000 – 2010.Instead of a rise in crime, as was expected, the crime rate actually dropped by 21 percent in the state and by 28.8 percent in New York City.