America – The World’s Number One Jailer at a Cost of Billions Each Year

Let’s talk about the U.S. prison system, shall we? By that, I mean the whole shebang. Prisons run by the federal government, state and locally run jails and juvenile correctional institutions and let’s toss in immigration detention facilities, military prisons and the 76 jails on Indian lands.

Altogether the United States of America’s criminal justice system imprisons more than 2.3 million inmates according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The PPI undertook the massive job of pulling together all the far-flung statistics from incarceration facilities all across the country. This unruly behemoth of a system costs U.S. taxpayers $80 billion each year.

Let that sink in. $80 billion each year. With that in mind is it too much to wonder whether all that taxpayer money is being spent wisely?

Has Crime Really Gone Up This Much or Should We Review Our Imprisonment Policies

America accounts for almost 5% of the planet’s population but we imprison about 25% of the world’s prisoners. That’s more than any other developed country in the world. So what’s the deal? Is our country so full of dangerous criminals who must be locked up to keep the rest of us safe? Or might we be doing something wrong?

I’m going with the latter.

First, realize that a substantial number of people – about 443,000 according to PPI – are held in local jails although they have not been convicted of a crime. They are there because they couldn’t scrape up bail money. Surely, some of these inmates are guilty but if a judge decided they could be released on bail their alleged crime was, presumably, not that serious. Some are held on charges as minor as driving with an invalid license or failing to identify oneself to an officer. Poorer citizens can languish behind bars for days, months and even years waiting for trial.

In one heart-wrenching case, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was held at New York’s infamous Rikers Island for three years on charges that he’d stolen a backpack. The teen spent two of those years in solitary confinement. Browder was ultimately released after prosecutors lost track of their eye-witness and dropped the case. Once free Browder earned his high school diploma and then, unable to cope, committed suicide.

Holding hundreds of thousands of people in jail while they await trial not only reeks of being unconstitutional it goes against the legal tenant of being “innocent until proven guilty.” It leaves families in tatters, forces spouses on to welfare and makes it hard for the accused unable to find work due to their record of incarceration. And it socks taxpayers with a huge bill for prisoner’s room and board.

I say it’s time to develop a system that swiftly and surely punishes those who fail to show up for trial instead of assuming no one will show unless they have money on the line. If they don’t have money for bail it’s unlikely they’ll skip the state.

Those Who Are Truly Mentally Ill Do Not Belong in Prison – Dangerous for Them & For Others

In addition, we’ve got to acknowledge that severely mentally ill people do not belong in jails or prisons. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many of these afflicted citizens are currently behind bars but best estimates indicate there are at least 356,000 prisoners in jails and state prisons who should be in a mental institution. Guards have no training to deal with the mentally sick and they pose a definite danger to themselves and others.

Then there are those who are serving extraordinarily long federal prison sentences for non-violent drug related crimes. Three strikes laws and mandatory sentencing guidelines resulted in even low-level drug offenders being sentenced to life in prison because they already had a police record. President Obama began a program to free those who had been shown to be model prisoners but countless thousands more remain locked up within our $80 billion dollar incarceration industry.

How Many Prisoners Equals Too Many Prisoners?

Last December Time Magazine reported the results of a three-year review of the system with an eye toward figuring out how many Americans are unnecessarily imprisoned. While some of their calculations could be seen as subjective Time’s criminologists, lawyers and statistical researchers came to an astounding conclusion:

“We found that approximately 39% of the nationwide prison population (576,000 people) is behind bars with little public safety rationale,” they wrote.

So how much money could we save if all those inmates identified as safely releasable were allowed to go home? According to Time’s study, “$20 billion annually, enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers.” I encourage you to read Time’s report.

One more point from me, your common sense columnist who has never been soft on crime. As America’s crime rates have steadily gone down the prison population continued to go up. How could that be?  As explained above it’s too many in lockup awaiting trial, too many mentally ill inmates and too many prisoners serving sentences we now realize were draconian to begin with.

Have we really been controlling public safety with the current incarceration system or has the ever-more-bloated corrections system taken control of us?

I’m going with the latter.







  1. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 8:50 am

    Reader Paul Burnett writes:

    Outstanding Op-Ed in the Albuquerque Journal this morning, September 2, 2017!

    There’s no question about this “system” violating our constitution. Until and unless people are proven guilty of a crime with real evidence presented to real juries, this “system”: will continue to violate our constitution.

    Our judicial system doesn’t have the funds to do it’s job. Citizens often try to escape jury duty. Our “system” has become an injustice system.

    Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. Thanks for mentioning this principle in our article. The Public (us) must step up to the plate and fund jury trials, and must insist that crimes be prosecuted promptly Of course dangerous criminals must be incarcerated, but those who are not dangerous must not be kept in jails or prisons pending trials. The Public needs to impose a strict limit on pre-trial confinement … no more than 30 days. It takes staff and money too collect evidence. We need more detectives to expedite investigations. We need more experts in las to analyze evidence. With proper staffing and funding, there would be no excuse for delays in prosecution. Prosecutors must be held accountable for presenting evidence to juries very quickly. If they can’t complete investigations and present evidence no later than 30 days after an arrest, they should be fired for incompetence. Obviously, jury trials require juries. Citizens must be willing to serve; doing so is part of the price of justice.

    Please keep up your efforts to shine a much-needed light on our injustice system. Justice is too important to be left to lawyers.


    Paul Burnett

  2. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 8:56 am

    Reader Terry Wilmot writes:

    Really well done article today, Ms. Dimond: “2.3M people behind bars costs us $80B a year”. Premises appear in order, strong arguments made, and conclusions well stated outlining the considerable work needed to be done in this country. Kudos for that!

    What I hope you will do in addition—aside from what is obviously needed to be done in your article—is somehow remind POTUS of his moral, ethical, political, and primary elected obligations as POTUS before he appoints ex-Milwaukee County sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. to a “senior role in the Homeland Security Department” or a roll anywhere else in the Federal government. I say this because of what we know about this person’s history as a citizen.

    “A vocal proponent of gun rights, Mr. Clarke rose to national attention last summer when he spoke at the Republican National Convention. His hard-line stances on law enforcement and association with the N.R.A. endeared him to the right and often brought him into conflict with the Black Lives Matter movement. He has called the Ferguson demonstrators “vultures on a roadside carcass” and once claimed that the Islamic State and Black Lives Matter activists were forming an alliance to destroy America. Clarke “would take over the office that coordinates the department’s outreach efforts for state, local, tribal, territorial governments and local law enforcement agencies in a position that does not require Senate confirmation.”*

    And because…

    “The appointment of Sheriff Clarke to a position intended to build partnership and engagement is not a decision made by someone interested in partnership or engagement,” Chris Abele, the Milwaukee County executive, said in a statement at the time.”*

    And because…

    “Even as sky-high incarcerations rates have become a bipartisan concern over the last decade, Sheriff Clarke has remained staunchly supportive of harsh penalties for nonviolent criminals, a position that unites him with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”*

    “In a video promoting his 2014 campaign, he said that rehabilitation is “not something for the criminal justice system to do” and that inmate programs such as job training rewarded criminals and promoted recidivism.”*

    *Who is Sheriff Clarke of Milwaukee County? A Brief Guide by Jonah Engel Bromich and Matti Stevens, May 22, 2017, The New York Times

    It is my strong opinion that additional people, who lack knowledge or awareness in general, are hopelessly uneducated and unsophisticated, improperly trained, possibly illiterate—unread certainly, otherwise clueless, and totally unworldly, need not be added to the cache of overloaded White House political appointees of the Trump administration which already roils from the effects of Mr. Trump’s malignant narcissism and assorted other clinical personality malfunctions when they are combined with his blatantly untalented assortment of political, social and cultural malcontents and hacks. The plight of these people is already of genuine international concern. The appointment of Mr. Clarke would only bring one more dangerous thug-bully hack into the putrid personnel/staff amalgam to contribute even more despotic, tyrannical, dictatorial, racist and undemocratic values, attitudes and beliefs to their “policy” discussions which already cause undue judicial havoc, confusion, fear, as well as creating considerable harm to the nation’s governmental infrastructure in such a way as to impair it’s value, usefulness, or normal function.

    I’m not in favor of this potential appointment; I hope you are not either.

    Sincerely — Terry Wilmot

  3. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 8:58 am

    Reader Mary Ann Edwards writes:

    We were burglarized here in Santa Fe in March. The two men who invaded our home had been recently released from prison for burglary. On their way out the front door, they dropped a vial of heroin in our driveway. We were on the road to California when this happened, thankfully. I maintain 80% of people you talk about are there because of drug habits. We have a HUGE problem in New Mexico and in every other state, really. Last week on a flight to Denver, I sat next to a lovely lady from Albuquerque. She has lived there for 40 years and is planning to move to Colorado….her daughter and family moved out of Albuquerque because of crime, and awful schools.
    Yes, it’s an obscene amount of money for incarceration and something needs to happen. I maintain that until the family is strengthened, and drugs have become as taboo as cigarettes…this will only get worse. AND now…many states have legalized marijuana just to add to the haze that encompasses our drug addled citizens. Our burglary was by druggies needing items to fence for drug money. These offenders hurt people and on the highway they kill people. At home, they neglect and abuse people.

    Mary Ann Edwards
    Santa Fe, New Mexico

  4. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 8:59 am

    Reader Joe Coleman writes:

    Good evening.

    RE: 2.3M people behind bars costs us $80B a year.

    Several comments regarding your article:

    1-You come across as a liberal. Am I correct?

    2- 2.3 million. Apparently you are not from Albuquerque. 5 or 6 million people behind bars would work better for me.

    3-$80 billion is because we treat prisoners like kings/queens. I could “house” a criminal for $100 a month.

    4-Mentally ill people are fine in prison. Contrary to #3 above, we need to spend money to make their lives as fulfilled as possible. IE, have wards in the prison that take care of them adequately.

    5-“You” follow the law, and if you don’t, you will pay. Stop babying these people. 23 arrests for burglaries? NOT. I will take care of this person for $100 per month.

    6-“but if a judge decided they could be released on bail, their alleged crime was, presumably, not that serious.” Any burglary is serious, EVEN ONE. If you don’t believe this, please e-mail me your address and I will publish it in the Journal stating: “This house is open. Go burglarize it. Diane wishes you the best.” Neighbor of mine has been burglarized 3 times lately.

    7-Rikers Island prisoner–You should be naming responsible parties; i.e., warden, etc., who should be in there own prison.

    8-Three-strike laws are stupid. Get rid of them.

    9-“with little public safety rationale,” This is a liberal view. It is also a lawless view. If you break the law, welcome to my $100/month prison.


    Conclusions: (I hope you are not a lawyer and/or take this personally)

    1-Someone commits a crime = 14 days to be tried, from start to finish

    2-No more judges. There will be a “judge panel” consisting of three judges

    3-Judges will control lawyers and their applicable fees to make sure trials don’t go on for months

    4-Prisoners will work. Prisoners will obey all rules. There will not be gang violence/knives/etc. in my prison. By the way, my prison is 100,000 acres of land between Socorro, New Mexico and T or C, New Mexico. Fences will be electric fences. Each prisoner gets her own space. Tents will be provided.
    Summarizing, the worst aspect of all of this is that if you send a person to prison, he is not safe. That is beyond comprehension. My prison would not allow this.

    Odd–I rarely read op-eds or letters to the editor, as I believe people are generally stupid. (Not really stupid, but they don’t think)

    Thank you for your op-ed. Thoughtful

    Joe Coleman, retired CPA with IQ of 380. (ha ha)

    • Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 9:00 am

      Mr. C:

      I assure you I am not a liberal. As regular readers of this column will attest I am a clear-thinking-common-sense independent voter. ~ DD

  5. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 9:04 am

    ABQ Journal Reader Laura Stokes:


    Thank you so much for pointing out the horrible injustice of our prison system. It is so important to have voices like yours speaking out and educating about these cruel truths.

    Laura Stokes

  6. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 9:04 am

    Reader Michael Daly writes:

    Ms. Dimond,

    Keep writing!

    Regarding your article referenced above. This following letter recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal:

    “Almost no one dies from drug overdoses in Portugal, where drugs of abuse were decriminalized 10 years ago. A coincidence? It seems more likely that ending the relationship between the criminal justice system and victims of drug abuse and investing our resources in treatment and rehabilitation [which for some may have to include heroin or morphine maintenance], would be a more effective way of saving the lives of our drug-dependent victims.”
    [Signed] Nelson Goodman, M.D. Annapolis, MD.

    Our nation has tried and failed to cut off supply. Let’s try cutting demand!


  7. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 9:05 am

    Reader Effie Osborne writes:

    Great article. However, you did not address the profit motive in the privatized prisons. Privatized prisons were originally promoted as a cost savings device. Looking beyond the obscenity of deriving a profit from containing human beings, many states have contracted privatized prisons with a promise of maintaining a 90% occupancy, completely obliterating the fundamental charge of the court system to maintain the safety of the community.

    Portugal in 2000 had the worst drug problem in Europe. They completely decriminalized all drugs and offer treatment in place of incarceration and now boast the least drug problem in Europe. Clearly, we are not interested in protecting the community. Our representatives respond to the privatized prison lobbyists, not the needs of the community.

    The Congress structured the immigration laws to fill privatized detention centers. What used to be a status offense, is now categorized as a felony to facilitate incarceration rather than problem-solving.

    Every bad public policy can be traced to corrupt corporate interference. Follow the money.

    Effie Osborne

  8. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Albuquerque Journal Reader Weston Sumner writes:

    “As America’s crime rates have steadily gone down, the prison population continues to go up.”

    How could you have missed what you wrote, Ms. Dimond? Didn’t it occur to you that locking up the criminals among us would reduce crime? Good grief!

    The only way that $80B is relevant is by comparing it to the money and heartache that is saved by keeping the perpetrators away from the rest of us. And, how do you price that heartache, anyway? The point is, you cannot! The less, the better. If keeping those with criminal proclivities locked up reduces the heartache among law abiding people the cost is more than worth it.

    Weston Sumner

    • Diane Dimond on September 4, 2017 at 9:18 am

      Mr. Sumner:

      Now it is my turn to quote you:

      >> “How could you have missed what you wrote, Ms. Dimond? Didn’t it occur to you that locking up the criminals among us would reduce crime? Good grief!” >>

      Please explain to me how keeping hundreds of thousands of poor people in jail — on infractions as minor as a pregnant woman’s “failure to identify herself to police officers” or “driving without possession of a driver’s license” — keeps the public safe?
      Just because someone can’t afford the $300 for bail on charges that he may have stolen a backpack, does that mean we lock him up for three years WITHOUT A TRIAL?

      And here’s another case: A woman with several children once wrote a bad check for groceries to feed her children. Then she did it again. Now she has a police record. So, when she agreed to a second job answering the phones for a “messenger service” and it turned out it was a drug operation she is slapped with LIFE IN PRISON because she is a repeat offender. This is a real case and it is not a rare case.

      We ARE housing countless thousands of people like this in prison for years and years (and sometimes for LIFE) to keep the public safe?? The woman described above is now in her 60’s. I say, let her go home to her children and grandchildren.

      I say let’s get each state to reevaluate their long-term prisoner’s cases and see if they are eligible to go home. If they truly were problem, undisciplined prisoners keep them in … if they behaved themselves for years and decades let them go. With supervision, of course.

      Forgiveness should figure into our prison system in my opinion.

      Diane Dimond

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