US is No. 1 at putting people behind bars

It costs between $28,000 and $60,000 to house an inmate. With federal prisons 40% overcrowded, can we afford to cut low-level drug offenders loose?

By Jason Notte Aug 14, 2013 4:01PM
Image: Jail © CorbisThe Justice Department wants to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions, reduce the prison population and start saving some money. As it turns out, prisons are among the few places in America where a surplus is a problem.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the department's plan on Monday, noting that the U.S. accounts for just 5% of the world's population but incarcerates almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. He added that U.S. federal prisons are nearly 40% above capacity and that almost half of the inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.

The cost of housing those prisoners isn't cheap, either. According to the federal Prisons Bureau, the average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2011 was nearly $29,000. A report by the non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice, "The Price of Prisons," states that the average cost of incarcerating one inmate in lower-tier prisons in 2010 was $31,307 per year. "In states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it's anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000," he said.

That $60,000 a year is a teacher, firefighter or police officer's salary that isn't paid. All told, the Vera Institute estimates that incarcerating criminals costs taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.

That's still a deal compared to the $500 million spent annually by the Pentagon on the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, which works out to $2.7 million per prisoner for all 166 prisoners. By comparison, America's most secure prison, the so-called Supermax in Florence, Colo., costs about $78,000 per year to operate on a per-prisoner basis.

But that's not the prison population being targeted here. The United States leads the world in the percentage of its population behind bars, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, largely because of mandatory minimum sentences and related laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s at a time of rising crime and drug violence.

According to statistics kept by the International Centre, 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison or in jail awaiting trial. That compares to 479 in Russia, 284 in Iran, 274 in Brazil, 209 in Mexico, 149 in England and Wales, 121 in China, 114 in Canada, 102 in France and 80 in Germany.

There are nearly 2.4 million Americans behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40%. That's led to overcrowding so acute in some areas that, in California, the U.S. Supreme Court called it "cruel and unusual punishment" and last May ordered the state to cut its prison population by more than 30,000.

On a grand scale, what Holder is proposing is a reconsideration of the "war on drugs" and its effect on the U.S. justice system. At its finest point, it's a bloated line item that seem ripe for a trim.

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Aug 15, 2013 8:48AM
I guess when some people read the headline they think ,Hey the U.S. is sure good at putting the BAD guys away. Sorry, but the truth is that the U.S. prison system is as evil and corrupt as many of the people they put in there. That, much like our politicians, justice is sold to the highest bidder.
Aug 15, 2013 12:21AM
Would be nice to see an end to the war on drugs. completely senseless and  a massive waste of $ and life
Aug 15, 2013 4:06AM
Keep the violent ones with long histories of being sick dogs..the rapist, home invading carjacking, store robbing, knife stabbing, murderering aholes in jail. Anyone they have actual proof of actions. If a girl calls rape to the innocent - she gets 10 years if proven wrong..Having an ounce of marijuana or 5 lbs should not get you 30 yrs. It should be legal. Manufacturing should carry some time...depending on the circumstances. High up importers should get more time and King pins 40-50 yrs. All circumstantial.
Aug 16, 2013 3:44PM

"War on Drugs"?  It makes kids criminals and spends way to much on prisons, ignoring rehabilitation and lifelong consequences.  We must support revising the ineffective sentencing mandated in the '80's and 90's.

The young, mostly men of color, who are incarcerated for minor drug offences makes it nearly impossible to promote families and jobs in that population, perpetuating poverty and hopelessness that leads a lot of kids to drugs.  Kind of a vicious circle.

Should be putting more money and harsher penalties on the dealers and others who profit from drugs.  Private for profit prisons are so wrong.  Let's get rid of the need for them.  .

Aug 15, 2013 7:55AM
Wow Clydene. I gather you NEVER did anything that if discovered could have resulted in sentencing. Throw them all on a desert island. Maybe even one of your own kids that was selling a few ounces of pot. Good idea. Its been working SO well up to this point. Way to be open to examining a system that is clearly not functioning well.

Aug 17, 2013 10:37AM

We have the lawyers and over-zealous prosecuting attorneys to thank for this.  With the "throw every possible charge at the offender and see what sticks" mentality, we have landed countless people in jail - most that are either mentally ill, or committed a non-violent crime (posession with intent to distribute marijuana for example).  Let's stop this insanity and put our (and I mean the taxpayer's) money to something that can benefit us as a whole.  I am sure each of you can think of better things to do with the money...

Aug 17, 2013 7:39AM
Some people think jails are there to punish people. others like me see jails as a place to isolate people who are a danger to society so that the innocent can be safer. If we can ever get the people to understand and agree which is which, we can start to fix the problem. people in jail for drug use are usually only a danger to themselves. 

people who have committed paper crimes like wire fraud of identity theft do damage to society but are not physically dangerous. They don't need to be housed in a big stone building with hundreds of guards.  A min security prison would work. one with very few guards and the promise that if you misbehave or escape, you will be sent to the real prison. the biggest cost for a prison is payroll. prison guards make a good paycheck, get great medical insurance and a great pension. THAT is what is costing so much.

Oh yeah, and that sheriff who makes people sleep in tents in pink underwear is not only a deviate, but he makes allot of money, has health care and a great pension.

Aug 17, 2013 11:35AM
we can solve this, we need to stop throwing people in jail for pot and stop with the endless appeals for death row inmates.... some of them have been 20 years appealing. Give them one chance and thats it! also make EVERY inmate take a job to pay for their time..we can "lease" the lower risk prisoners to outside contractors. this would reduce the costs of running our prisons.Plus it will stop a lot of the violence done by inmates with nothing else to do....If they are forced to work for what they have, they may even learn a little respect for themselves...It's called rehabilitation
Aug 17, 2013 3:11PM
Nobody should be in prison because of a plant. ANY plant.
Aug 17, 2013 11:47AM
Let's stop inhumane sentencing now!
Aug 14, 2013 5:14PM
There is a simple fix for this overcrowding and for the cost per inmate.  Give them two sets of clothes and put them in a tent in the dessert and make the time fit the crime.  They are treated better than our elderly in a nursing home!!! Turn OFF the cable TV, and the internet and the computers.  Make them do manuel labor if they are in prison.  No heat, no air!!!!   They should have absolutley NO RIGHTS TO ANYTHING WHATSOEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!  They "have it made"!!!
Aug 17, 2013 9:55AM

Our tyrannical ruler will put anyone in jail that he see fit.

The court system is just a kangaroo court with verdicts established well before the court date

Aug 17, 2013 7:07PM

The war on drugs is over, drugs won. A certain percent of the population are going to be drug addicts and no law will stop it. So it is time to get real and treat drug addiction for what it is, an addiction pure and simple. Time to register drug addicts and set up means that drugs can be obtained legal with a prescription, taxed and regulated so a drug addict could get his fix at Walgreens for example. The war on drug money could then be spent on clinics to help drug addicts kick the habit. Just locking people up is not the answer, You can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results.


Most of the problem lies with gutless politicians that instead of facing the situation as it really is, instead passes laws that just keeps putting more people in prison and sweeps the problem under the rug. This backward thinking has finally caught up to the real problem in that there is no way the tax payer can afford to keep throwing junkies and  drug dealers in prison. The time is coming soon that the public will demand a change and a new way of dealing with drug addiction. The bottom line is there is no way the already over burdened tax payer can afford to maintain the ever growing prison population with the way of dealing with drug addiction as it is now. 

Aug 17, 2013 3:38PM
the treating of young people as criminals over weed creates just that, CRIMINALS..........when you treat people as such, when you give them a criminal record, when you create negative experiences with young people the end result is making them what they weren't previously were NOT, but after negative experiences with cops, after negative experiences with the judiciary, after the "system" labels them criminals and they cant get meaningful jobs, what does one expect the end result to be?...i can tell you, they become what the system MADE them become---CRIMINALS-----i submit that the gov't is criminal in this aspect..........declassify weed as criminal......hold hard drug usage in check with sensible laws and get rid of criminals with badges and those who make such disasterous policies.
Aug 17, 2013 12:06PM

     I doubt we see any significant change and surely not an end to the drug war in America. Reason- MONEY!!!   Cities, counties, police department, and consulting group get federal grants to fight drugs. Gun and equipment manufacturers make a killing on charging tax funded entities for their products. The budget for FBI, DEA, ICE, ABC and just about every other alphabetic trio get money for the war on drugs. and the prison guards belong to one of the most powerful (almost mob like) unions on the planet. I would love to think the will of the PEOPLE and COMMON SENSE would prevail, but it seems unlikely here in THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY.

  In my town of West Sacramento, CA the police and city got together to create UNCONSTITUTIONAL LAWS and get federal funds for a gang no one ever heard of and does not exist. At least I never heard of them in my 40 years (lived here since age 7)here as have none of my friends or any of the 100+ relatives that live here!!!

Aug 17, 2013 5:19PM
It's hard to say the US is fighting a war on drugs when the government is financing the cartel. It's furnishing weapons and money to the Mexican Cartel across the border. I say keep the repeat offenders, rapists and manufacturers  locked up. Execute the child molesters. gang members and  murderers. The young first time offenders can be released.
Aug 17, 2013 11:28AM
DO NOT forget the daily killing by USA police in car accidents alone (21 killed every day in order to try not to have so many cell phone users in jail, when they find drugs in the cars at the same time.) AND if all else fails they kill 2.7 every day by shooting, sometimes  when a "defendant/suspect" reach for a weapon (cell Phone) to call their lawyer, and yet I can see that it must be overcrowded, I can not find more than 2 police people on duty (killing) that went to jail the entire last year--so you are right the jails must be way overcrowded , since there is not enough space for real killers, completely different by a factor of 20-100 per million people in real western countries, when police kill anyone..
Aug 17, 2013 11:58AM
I'm convinced the government knows marijuana isn't bad but they won't legalize it because of the obvious reasons: they can't tax it especially since it can be grown out of someone's back yard and pharmaceutical companies will lose a lot of money lol

But yea I blame the Chinese lol ;) for creating guns way back when they fighting the Mongols, then we wouldn't have so many deaths caused by gun violence. Yes I completely understand protection from idiots but these same idiots are running around killing innocent people over simple **** like Jordan sneakers!

The entire world needs to hold a Pot Day so everyone can smoke ONE joint, listen to music then all (well most, cuz marijuana effects EVERYONE differently) of us would be happy human beings! =D

Aug 17, 2013 4:28AM

writer writes over past 20 years crime has dropped by 40%, so guess we have less criminals in jail so the crime rate will go down by 60 %, what a stupid statement.  About as stupid as chasing people down

for bad habits, let em take drugs!








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