The Justice Department announced that a record seven million men and women - about 3 percent of the adult US population - were incarcerated, on probation or parole at the end of last year. Prosecutions for drug crimes are the biggest contributors, as drug offenders made up 55 percent of the US prison population.
One in every 32 US adults were involved in some stage of the criminal justice system last year, and America has dubious distinction of recording the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
The American effort to combat drug abuse by targeting users is counterproductive, and we spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year to house this poulation. A 1996 study estimated 78 percent of federal prison dollars were spent "incarcerating individuals who had a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse, were convicted of drug and/or alcohol violations, were using drugs and/or alcohol at the time of their crimes, or had committed their crimes to get money to buy drugs."
From 1985 to 2000 the state of Ohio increased spending on corrections at five times the rate that it increased spending on higher education. Higher education spending increased by 38% ($670 million) while corrections spending increased by 211% ($1.026 billion), and this is a sad reflection on this state's priorities.
In New York the annual operating cost of a prison bed is about $40,000, while the annual cost at an inpatient drug treatment facility is $17,000 (outpatient slots range between $2,300 and $4,000 per year). These cost savings do not reflect the productive value to society of free adults, nor the hidden costs in areas such as child welfare when parents are jailed.
It is time to change our methods.