Prison reform is a must for the states

It costs almost as much to send a man to prison for a year as it does to send him to Harvard, with room and board. Good investment? Photo: AP

NEW YORK, March 14, 2013 — It is time to consider prison reform.

Since President Obama’s reelection, there have been many topics such as the fiscal cliff, gun control and the deficit that have dominated the news. Congress must prioritize to deal with some pressing issues, and voters will watch and decide where they stand and which issues are pertinent to our voting decisions. But this is almost certain: The issue of prison reform will be overlooked once again, though it desperately needs the attention of state and federal law makers and special interest groups.

Prison reform requires that policy makers and stakeholders actually investigate and invest in this issue. Both state and national changes are needed to our current penal system. As of 2013, approximately 2 million Americans are incarcerated; the majority are minorities, specifically African American and Latino, who tend to be frequent repeat offenders. The federal government every year spends on average $50 billion on state departments of corrections and prison-related industries. This is about the amount that state governments spend on education.

To the extent that we spend more and more to fund the state and federal penal systems, we have fewer tax dollars to spend on other critical services. This is money that is consumed with almost no real return to society. We need our judicial and penal systems, but they’ve grown beyond reason. It’s important to isolate those individuals who have broken the laws of society, but at what expense?

We spend approximately $40,000 per inmate per year. This includes food, clothing, recreation, and medical care that even includes sex-realignment surgery. The average annual cost of attending Columbia University or any Ivy League institution is about $45,000 per year, including room and board. It shouldn’t cost as much to send a man to San Quentin as it does to send him to Harvard, and we’re sending far too many men to prison. Taxpayers shouldn’t be burdened with the cost of two million Harvard students while total unemployment around the country remains stubbornly at near depression levels.

When states allocate corrections spending, they should first consider why criminals are punished and how to prevent further criminal behavior from them. They should analyze different means of prevention to reduce the number of first-time offenders, along with preventing recidivism.

States are wasting money on a hugely flawed prison system, which instead of rehabilitating and training prisoners for better lives after prison, functions as wildly expensive universities of crime. State governments need to identify more cost efficient methods to both punish and prevent crime at the same time.

State legislatures are cutting budgets and searching for ways to cut costs. Prisons should be the main targets for these cost reductions and should be evaluated by three performance measures: the cost of rehabilitation, the level of prevention, and the rate of recidivism. America’s rates of recidivism are higher than any other developed nation’s in the world, and we have responded not by focusing on how to keep inmates from coming back, but on how to keep them in as long as we can.

Hawaii offers one simple example of how to do this right. In most states, when people violate terms of probation or parole, they are sent back to prison for long amounts of time, but only after long delays and an uncertain legal process. In Hawaii, the sentences are short, but they are almost immediate. Certain, immediate, and short terms of incarceration turn out to be much more effective at detering behavior than uncertain, longer terms at some point in the indeterminate future. Fewer people go back to jail for shorter times, a winning situation for taxpayers and probationers alike. 

Our system seems almost designed to keep the most people in prison for the longest time possible, and to ensure that violent, dangerous conditions in prison will not only not reform anyone or prepare anyone for life outside of prison, but will promote recidivism. This reckless approach to  spending tax payer dollars to fund an investment that provides no return should be evaluated by every state governor in the union. They should addressing issues like, protection of inmates, the cost of the state appeal process, reducing sentences for non-violent offenders, and education and labor training alternatives for inmates. State and federal institutions are fully responsible for the huge fiscal burden on the American tax payer, and the penal system is a place pregnant with opportunties to reduce costs.


Brandon Brice is a graduate of Howard University, Rutgers University’s Graduate Eagleton Institute of Politics and is currently completing his studies at Columbia University. Brandon is a conservative blogger/writer and political contributor for


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