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July 11, 2008

Wash Post urges stop to "warehousing nonviolent offenders"

The Washington Post has this editorial today, headlined "Too Many Prisoners: States should stop warehousing nonviolent offenders."  Here is how it starts:

Two reports by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the rate of growth in the prison and jail populations of the United States has slowed slightly but that the country still has the dubious distinction of being the largest jailer in the world. As of June 30, 2007, the country held roughly 2.3 million people behind bars, either in local or state jails or in federal prisons.

The cost of housing and caring for inmates has been astronomical, an estimated $55 billion annual expense for taxpayers, according to the Pew Center on the States. The bloated number of inmates has been particularly painful for states, some of which have been forced to cut spending for higher education to fund corrections programs. As a result, California is considering an overhaul of its prison policies, as are Kentucky, Mississippi, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

This fiscal crisis should be a wake-up call for all states.  Tough sentences for murder, rape and the like are unquestionably necessary and contributed to a drop in such crimes over the past two decades. But prisons should be focused on holding the most dangerous criminals rather than on warehousing nonviolent, first-time offenders.

Regular readers know I have done hundreds of posts on these topics.  Here are just a few recent ones for those who want some background support for the Post's ideas:

July 11, 2008 at 12:29 PM | Permalink


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OK Doug why don't we release all persons incarcerated for theft?

Posted by: John Neff | Jul 11, 2008 2:04:10 PM

I will presume John Neff is not being disengenuous. Identity thieves, bank check thieves, even shoplifters ply their trade on a daily basis, destroy the fabric of society and cost the public untold sums in direct losses, extra insurance, etc. Inflated estimates of prison expenses notwithstanding, many believe incapacitation is a bargain for society.

Posted by: mjs | Jul 11, 2008 2:35:11 PM


"Warehousing nonviolent offenders" is a slogan based on the assumption that all nonviolent offenders in prison are serving a sentence for drug possession. My point was that thieves are also nonviolent offenders.

Using the $55 billion estimate for the cost of incarceration (I think $70 billion is a better estimate) the per capita cost of incapacitation is $183 per year. As you have noted the per capita cost of shoplifting is more than that but very few shoplifters are incarcerated and about $140 of the incapacitation cost is unrelated to property crime. Are we getting $183 per capita benefits per year because of deterrence? I don't think so because I think of prisons as homes for the undeterred.

Posted by: John Neff | Jul 11, 2008 3:48:21 PM

Non-violent does not mean non-serious. I don't think we can/should say that non-violent offenders categorically are not worthy of prison space. Say what you want about the value of detterence, incapacitated prisoners can not ply their trade until they are released.

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