How much does America pay to punish criminal offenders?

Since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States has fought multiple wars and weathered a severe economic downturn. Partially because our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been so expensive and because the economic downturn was also exceedingly expensive, both the federal government and state governments have been struggling with their budgets for years. As a result, lawmakers at both the state and federal levels are increasingly scrutinizing all government expenditures and debating what reforms must be made given that budgets are currently tight.

Over the past several months, the Obama administration has made numerous efforts aimed at reducing rates of mass incarceration at the federal level. The president was partially inspired to pursue this course of action because many low-level and non-violent drug offenders would have been given far more lenient sentences had they been given the opportunity to present their criminal defense and be sentenced under today’s reformed sentencing laws.

However, the president was also almost certainly inspired by the costs of mass incarceration. Certainly, some violent offenders who pose a significant danger to public safety should be incarcerated. But a number of low-level and non-violent offenders could be held accountable for their actions and receive necessary training in order to live a crime-free life going forward in settings other than jail or prison that are far, far more cost effective than incarceration is.

According to the New York Times, U.S. taxpayers spent approximately $80 billion on costs related to incarceration in 2010 alone. This staggering number could be reduced significantly if the U.S. began to more steadily move away from mass incarceration policies and towards effective alternative forms of accountability.

Source: The New York Times, "In the U.S., Punishment Comes Before the Crimes," Eduardo Porter, April 29, 2014

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