Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have placed not just their police department under a microscope, but the whole of the national criminal justice system, including state and federal departments of corrections. Problematic police behavior has created a flash-point, and citizens, not just ethnic minorities, are tired of being played the fool and letting a system run rough-shod without some measure of accountability. It is high time, many are suggesting, that the system get an overhaul. When the problem is narrowed to focus on corrections and outcomes what we find is that instead of cops policing the sale of illegal cigarettes in New York, perhaps tax payer monies would be better spent in policing corrections and its high cost of incompetence.
Judging whether or not the U.S. correctional system, as an industry, is a success or failure we have simply to look at the numbers. Going into recent events most average american tax-payers assumed that their well-earned tax monies were being used appropriately and efficiently. The assumption has been that with all the money being spent on corrections, the recidivism rate should be low and that parolees should be re-entering society with community-friendly character-traits and marketable employment skills. Recent indications are that, despite the lip-service coming out of authorities, correctional institutions are less interested in actual rehabilitation than in simple warehousing.
Back in the early 70’s there were somewhere in the order of 300,000 inmates in the United States, now there are over two million in state, federal and private institutions. That number has exponentiated as today there are approximately two million inmates, roughly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Recent studies suggest that not only is the prison population growing but inmate recidivism rates remain at problematic levels. While the average recidivism rate has gone down 2.1 percent from the 1999-2002 rate of 45.4 percent to the 2004-2007 rate of 43.3 percent, the decline is considered statistically meaningless. When communities get the sticker-shock associated with the cost of running a prison and the perpetually negative outcomes many are opting-out. They do a bit of old-fashioned policing and turn to the private sector and entrepreneurial capitalism for relief. The relatively new for-profit prisons are privately held, stock-holder administered businesses that have the unilateral ability to administer affairs in a cost-saving, profit-making manner. But while they tend to be more competent in policing themselves in terms of cost-over runs and profit margins, they are entirely less so in policing the actual incompetence of correctional outcomes.
Whether public or private, both are brimming to an almost breaking-point. Providing practical yet effective therapy programs calculated to address inmate issues are becoming increasingly problematic. Many argue that current correctional therapies including drug addiction and sex offender therapy programs not only do not work, but they, despite what correctional departments and their public relations wings might argue about their self-policing efforts in this regard, in many cases, exacerbate the problems addicts are dealing with. For example, while a given drug-offender is going through administration and judge-mandated therapy, the inmate is exposed to, in some cases, a higher-per capita availability and access to street drugs inside prison than on the streets without. And for sex offenders, while forced to process and address their issues in group settings, sexual assault and victimization in prisons is high. Recent brain-studies suggest that the drug addict and sex offender-issues and predilections are actually magnified in these settings making the the prospects of parole a community gamble worth thinking twice about.
The cost of running prisons has gone from approximately $10 billion in the mid-eighties to the latest $52 billion. This massive increase suggests that not only is the cost of incarceration going up, but with so many inmates recidivating after wreaking havoc in the very communities that paid for their accommodations, prisons are simply not doing what they are paid to do. When the numbers come in and are totaled it becomes clear that the problems in Ferguson and New York can be extrapolated and bled into the problems local communities may have with correctional officials nation-wide who, for some, appear to be less committed to their safety than in earning a buck. In the end, if citizens are not empowered in the niceties of policing correctional institutions, then the cost of incompetence may not just be on display Ferguson and New York, but throughout the nation .
By: Matthew R. Fellows
Photo By: Alexander C. Kafka Flickr License