American Dream

Why Prison Reform Is Good for Former Inmates—and Taxpayers, Too

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America’s prisons are so full, they’re nearly bursting. The United States holds more than 2.3 million people locked up, which is the largest incarcerated population of any country. In addition to disrupting society, the U.S. crime rate and its resulting corrective measures are costing taxpayers a fortune—and the time for prison reform is now.

One reason there are so many prisoners is the nation’s high rate of crime recidivism: Roughly two out of every three released prisoners end up back in jail within three years, according to Opportunity Lives. Because a released inmate is likely to be arrested again, a good way to get the prison population under control is to lower the recidivism rate. Fortunately, new prison reform strategies show potential in getting former inmates on track to a productive life.

The Cost of Prison

Federal and state governments spend about $74 billion annually to house the nation’s prison population. That doesn’t include money spent on trials and on monitoring ex-convicts on probation or parole. As The Crime Report highlights, the Vera Institute of Justice found that, as of 2010, prison costs averaged more than $31,000 per inmate each year. In some states, that cost is much higher. As of 2010 in New York, for instance, keeping an inmate cost a whopping $60,000 per year.

To put these figures into perspective, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the nation only spends about $12,600 per year on each student in public elementary and secondary schools.

Prison Reform Ideas

As long as the recidivism rate stays high, it’ll remain nearly impossible to reduce the nation’s prison population. Some reformers say that time spent in jail can make it incredibly difficult for ex-convicts to get a job; it’s true that many employers ask whether a job applicant has been in jail as part of their hiring process. Because their options are limited, these ex-convicts may return to crime. One solution, called Ban the Box, aims to make this questioning illegal.

Other reformers say that focusing on employers won’t accomplish enough. Many ex-convicts do not have the skills needed to build a successful career before going to jail, so it’s not likely that they’ll do any better after spending a few years behind bars. Instead, these reformers recommend that former convicts receive specialized training during the first few months after their release. This training would cover job skills, such as writing a resume, interview tips, and interpersonal skills, such as anger management and communication strategies.

The Results So Far

One organization, America Works, offers a training program for $5,000 per released inmate per year. While this is another upfront investment, if it can reduce recidivism even a little, it could pay for itself many times over.

A recent study of the America Works program shows clear positive results for a group of former inmates arrested for nonviolent crimes (property crimes, the sale or possession of drugs, and other minor offenses). The recidivism rate for inmates who received enhanced training fell to 31 percent during the three years of the study. Researchers estimate that every $5,000 spent on enhanced job training for nonviolent offenders could save taxpayers $231,000 by preventing former inmates from returning to the prison system, a return of 46 times on every dollar spent.

The current prison system appears to be wasting resources that are needed for other programs. By adopting more effective prison reform programs, such as America Works, we may be able to prevent recidivism, help our communities, and save taxpayers billions.