Rethinking budget priorities

In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof asks a simple question:  Prisons or Health Care?  We could expand that to ask the states, education or prisons?

At a time when there is no state that is not having trouble balancing its budget and cuts are being made to things like physical education and after school programs while class sizes are increasing, I haven’t heard anyone talk about cost we pay for incarceration.  And our prisons are also overcrowded.  There was a recent distrubance in the Middlesex County jail during which water pipes were destroyed leaving the prison uninhabitable.  We taxpayers will pay to reconstruct the jail, of course.

Why is no one talking about reducing the prison population as a way to save money?  We’ve known for a long time that the three strikes rule is great in baseball, but not so great when it comes to criminal justice, but I haven’t heard of anyone who has repealed their law.

To quote Kristof

It’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system, as legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Webb has called for, so that we’re no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health. Consider a few facts:

¶The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.

¶California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.

¶For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared.

¶One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project.

I think Jim Webb is becoming one of my favorite Senators.

Senator Webb has introduced legislation that would create a national commission to investigate criminal justice issues — for such a commission may be the best way to depoliticize the issue and give feckless politicians the cover they need to institute changes.

“There are only two possibilities here,” Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

Opponents of universal health care and early childhood education say we can’t afford them. Granted, deficits are a real constraint and we can’t do everything, and prison reform won’t come near to fully financing health care reform. Still, would we rather use scarce resources to educate children and heal the sick, or to imprison people because they used drugs or stole a pair of socks?