Ohioans Pay For Prison Now
Posted April 07, 2003 in Op-Eds
It may sometimes seem that what happens behind bars has little bear
ing on the economy, and that economics has little to do with public
safety. In fact, criminal justice policy is all about how we use resources –
economic resources, human resources and development resources. As
Ohio stares down a $4 billion budget deficit, a rising rate of
unemployment and entrenched poverty in rural and central-city
neighborhoods, we can no longer afford to ignore the price of prisons.
That’s why Kent State University and Policy Matters Ohio have invited
some of the most insightful people in the nation to talk about the
economics of criminal justice at Kent State this Thursday. The
symposium brings together those who make the laws, those who
enforce them, those who study them and those who critique them.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Reginald
Wilkinson will speak alongside award-winning photographer, author and
Soros Fellow Andrew Lichtenstein, who will present a slide show of his
disturbing photographs of the prison industrial complex.
Throughout the day, sheriffs, state legislators and other
practitioners will discuss grim realities such as:
Nationally, we imprison 2 million people, more than twice as many
as in 1985, four times as many as in 1973. More than 60 percent
are in for nonviolent crimes. Ohio, which has 11.4 million
residents, locks up 45,000 people, more than the countries of France
and Turkey. Japan, with its 125 million people, imprisons just
10,000 more inmates than the state of Ohio.
Spending on corrections in Ohio grew by more than a
billion dollars over the 1980s and 1990s, according to the Justice Policy
Institute, whose president will speak at the symposium. Most of this
growth is due to mandatory sentencing for nonviolent crime.
America’s high rate of imprisonment masks the true face of our
unemployment problem. Symposium participant and Princeton
University sociologist Bruce Western shows that the national
incarceration rate for young black men increased from 5.7 percent in the
early 1980s to 11 percent in the late 1990s. When added to other
jobless workers, 32.6 percent of young black men and 12.8 percent of
young white men in the United States are not working. These numbers
dwarf official unemployment rates.
In addition to increasing the number of people idled because they’re
behind bars, incarceration saps lifelong employment prospects for exoffenders.
As we’ve swelled sentences for nonviolent crime, exoffenders are less connected to
community than ever before, less able to parent, work and function in a demanding
society. Nationwide, 60 percent of ex-offenders are unemployed a year after release,
and 62 percent are re-arrested within three years.
More than 50,000 inmates are released each month in this country. But
ex-convicts are not equally distributed throughout the population.
Certain communities bear a disproportionate burden in trying to help ex-
offenders navigate their limited prospects. Western found that among all
African-American men in their early 30s, the percent who had
experienced prison (22) by 1999 was greater than the percent who had
finished college (12). Central city black communities have to adapt
relationships, employment and family roles to deal with this reality.
At Thursday’s symposium, we’ll hear about options that eat less of the
public dollar and don’t do so much damage to offenders’ lifelong
possibilities. Drug courts, community corrections, prison vocational
programs and prison education programs can lead to lower
incarceration costs and lower rates of return to prison.
Ohio has led the way on some of these options, but the state has more
to learn about others.
What is the cost of confinement? It diverts state funding from other
priorities, steers municipal economic development policy, removes
workers from communities, divorces fathers (and increasingly mothers)