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Paying the full cost of mass incarceration

December 29, 2018

The public spends $273 billion a year on the criminal justice system, but the full cost of mass incarceration is borne by broken families, separated children, stressed-out single parents and people who emerge from prison without the life or work skills that contribute to staying out of trouble.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of arrest and re-arrest that can break families, fails to cultivate change and comes at immense cost to taxpayers.

These are the sad truths of mass incarceration in America. A recent report from Fwd.us, a bipartisan group focusing on criminal justice reform, and researchers with Cornell University pegs these truths to hard numbers.

The most startling? About 113 million people in the United States have a loved one who is or has been incarcerated. That means half of American adults have had a loved who has been locked up. These are spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings and children.

Are we really that dangerous, America? And more importantly, does mass incarceration make us safer?

We don’t think so. As the report states, “The reality is that incarceration provides few crime benefits and limits opportunities for people to be successful once they have been released.”

Other numbers from the report to consider: On any given day, 1.5 million people are in state and federal prisons. Each year, 11 million people end up in jails. One in seven adults have had a loved one locked up in the last year.

Mass incarceration crosses political lanes. It affects Democrats, Republicans and Independents evenly, the study found. But it disproportionately affects minorities and poor people. People of color make up 67 percent of the prison population, but about 37 percent of the U.S. population, the study found. Black people are 50 percent more likely than white people to have a family member get locked up.

Poor people are also more likely to get locked up — a dynamic that could be remedied through proper bail reform.

From there, comes family stress and instability. Other research has pointed to spikes in mental health issues, homelessness and loss of income for the family members of an incarcerated people. These loved ones have committed no crime, but still suffer punishment.

Texas has the seventh-highest imprisonment rate, Fwd.us found. The prison population is a little less than 164,000. It’s mostly men and overwhelmingly minority. About 477,000 young Texans have had a parent incarcerated.

If people have committed crimes they have to be held accountable for their actions. No one is arguing for going soft on rapists and murderers, or dismissing the harm such crimes cause. But mass incarceration fails to address the root causes of crime, and it fails to distinguish those accused of violent offenses from those accused of nonviolent offenses.

The president recently signed the appropriately named First Step Act. Among its measures, it will allow federal inmates to leave prison earlier, will change some mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more leeway in sentencing. This is needed, but it is indeed a first step.

That’s why the bail reform movement sweeping this nation is so crucial toward reducing jail populations more broadly. Cash bail has nothing to do with risk, but it does tilt the wheel against poor people unable to make bond. They may plead guilty to charges — even if they are innocent — to simply secure liberty and return home. But by that point, even if it’s just a few days or say 18 hours, they have been separated from their loved ones and potentially lost wages or jobs.

Again, we are reminded of this stirring passage about the inequalities of cash bail from Judge Edith Brown Clement, of the conservative-leaning 5th U.S. Circuit Court.

Imagine two people, one wealthy and one poor. They are charged with the same crime, but the wealthy one can make bond.

“As a result, the wealthy arrestee is less likely to plead guilty, more likely to receive a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to bear the social costs of incarceration,” she wrote. “The poor arrestee, by contrast, must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart.”

Assessing defendants based on risk, not an ability to make bond, would help stem mass incarceration. So, too, would cite-and-release programs for nonviolent misdemeanors that funnel people into meaningful diversion and training programs.

Mass incarceration is a sprawling issue, but it becomes very personal when it’s someone’s parent, spouse, child or loved one.

There is a better way for America and Texas.

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