Mass Incarceration’s Real Costs

The social and economic impacts on our communities are devastating. We need to seize the opportunity to reform our criminal-justice system.
by , | June 7, 2016

Eric Garcetti

Mayor of Los Angeles

Mick Cornett

Mayor of Oklahoma City and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors

The United States is at a crossroads on criminal justice. Americans make up less than 5 percent of the global population but comprise 25 percent of the world's incarcerated people. Mass incarceration has not made our nation any safer, and it comes at a hefty price to our states and our communities.

Taxpayers spend $80 billion every year on incarceration. Nationwide, per-capita expenditures on corrections have tripled over the past three decades. But our criminal-justice policies exact more than an economic price. In 2010, approximately 2.7 million young people -- 1 in every 28 American children -- had a parent in prison. Children with fathers who have been incarcerated are much more likely to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent vs. 4 percent), and a family's income drops, on average, 22 percent over the years that a father is incarcerated.

These social costs are devastating, especially for African-Americans and Latinos, who made up one quarter of the U.S. population but comprised 59 percent of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons as of the end of 2013. Harmful mandatory minimum sentencing policies, in particular, have had a disproportionate impact. Studies show, for example, that white and black Americans use drugs at approximately the same rates, yet African-Americans are sent to prison for drugs offenses 10 times more often.

In California and Oklahoma, we know it's time to make a change. Addressing homelessness is a priority in Los Angeles, and in Oklahoma City maintaining low unemployment rates continues to be at the top of the agenda. These are two issues with direct ties to our failed drug war and criminal-justice policies; individuals often exit the criminal justice system without receiving the rehabilitation they need, including mental health treatment and job skills and training.

Furthermore, with California and Oklahoma burdened by severe prison overcrowding, our citizens have seen up close how mandatory minimum sentencing laws at the federal level are causing massive expense at the state level without addressing the root causes of crime.

We have an opportunity to right the wrongs of draconian criminal-justice policies on the federal level. The proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reform mandatory minimums for certain offenses while broadening judges' discretion in sentencing. This Senate bill also would also expand rehabilitation programs in prisons.

We applaud this approach and urge lawmakers to include appropriate transition support for those who have done their time. Too often, "transition support" means $40 and a bus ticket. After spending months or years in jail, people released without meaningful support find few opportunities to build a new life and end up homeless or back in the revolving door of incarceration.

Harsh mandatory minimum laws for low-level, nonviolent offenders do more harm than good. Studies show the threat of incarceration, not the length of sentencing, influences behavior. By moving toward discretionary sentencing that allows judges to distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenses, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act allows for more positive prospects for re-entry as well as a more efficient use of federal tax dollars in keeping our communities safe.

The need for criminal justice reform has been recognized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and a bipartisan group of senators -- including Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein of California -- have stepped forward to co-sponsor the bill. We urge California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Oklahoma Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford to join their colleagues in calling for reform on an issue that affects communities across the country.

In Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, we'll continue working toward smart policies that benefit our communities. It's time our federal representatives did the same.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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