By Nicholas Turner, President & Director, Vera Institute of Justice, Forbes
But this astronomical figure doesn’t capture the full scope of mass incarceration in the United States. It doesn’t account for the more than 10 million people who enter jail cells each year. It doesn’t illustrate how 80 percent of people in jail face low-level charges (also known as Part II offenses) like “disorderly conduct,” or how most of the nearly half a million people held pretrial in jail are there simply because they can’t afford bail. It also doesn’t show how racially biased the system is, with Black and brown people far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with lifelong conviction records than white people.
The United States spends $182 billion per year on mass incarceration, a system that harms millions and fails to make communities safer. This includes 3,000 jails and 1,900 state and federal prisons that cost taxpayers $85 billion per year.
The figures are staggering, but more appalling are the inadequate and often inhumane conditions within jails and prisons. An inspection of the Oklahoma County jail earlier this year found moldy showers, bedbugs, and cockroaches. People incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California declared a hunger strike last July to protest dismal living conditions, including little to no access to showers, fresh air, or electrical power, and inadequate medical care. In 2019, a two-year U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Alabama’s prisons detailed violations, including sexual abuse and violence, that were characterized as “severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision.”
Four decades of ill-conceived “tough-on-crime” policies have created the apparatus of our current system. Dismantling it will require transformational change in all areas. Police, prosecutors, and legislators all have a part to play.