The One Reform That Could Bring Republicans and Democrats Together


As Warden Norton told Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, "There's only three ways to spend the taxpayer's hard-earned money when it come to prisons. More walls. More bars. More guards." The prison system may be the one issue that Republicans and Democrats can agree is in need of reform, because it is making both of their wallets lighter, but neither party is brave enough to don the cap of being "soft on crime" and begin this movement. In a nation that holds 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prisoners, someone has to be fronting the bill.

However, the seeds of change may already have been planted by two factors. First, at the end of 2012, the U.S. prison population declined for the third year in a row. Second, the U.S. imprisoned 27,770 fewer people in 2012 than in 2011. This decrease can be credited to a greater decrease in the state prison population, down 2.1%, than the 0.7% increase in the federal prison population.

Now, what exactly goes into the cost of running a prison? If one were to assume that it is an expensive venture that has similar implicit and explicit costs to running a university or a nursing home, they would be correct. The Vera Institute for Justice compiled an impressive study that created a methodology to calculate the total cost of the burden on taxpayers to keep inmates housed, clothed, cared for, and educated. Vera was also kind enough to include some of the more overlooked costs of prisons, such as underfunded pensions, underfunded retiree health care, capital costs, judgements and legal claims, statewide administrative costs, inmate hospital care, inmate education and training, and other state costs.

Take Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 40,000 individuals incarcerated, at $24.39 a day, that really adds up. In fact, it adds up to $8,902.35 per person per year and $356,094,000 for the whole lot. For that price, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Taxpayer could certainly see some more nonviolent, low profile inmates collecting trash along the freeway.

In the same state, room and board at LSU would run a single student $6,967 for the scholastic year. Anyone who has walked into a dormitory on move-in day would also agree that the cold blank white walls and the utilitarian furniture remind them of a prison cell.

So, how exactly does the government divvy up money for inmates versus public school students? CNN Money did an equally impressive and disheartening case study with information from The Vera Institute and the U.S. Census to examine this. In the same 40 states that The Vera Institute collected information from, each state spent more money on an individual inmate that it did on a student.

In a nation that spends more money on its incarcerated than on its educated, is it that surprising that people become increasingly concerned with the morality of our youth and more and more angered at the increasing costs of keeping and maintaining our prison system? Perhaps just as the warden told Andy Dufresne, "Salvation lies within." For us, that would mean that the two-party system could come together and address an issue that does not work in either party's favor.