State Prison Spending Is The Fastest-Growing Budgetary Item After Medicaid

As the U.S. system of mass incarceration takes an ever-greater toll on budgets and communities, more social scientists of all ideological leanings are calling for lesser prison sentences and alternatives to prisons. An extensive New York Times report on this phenomenon tells the story of Stephanie George, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for her alleged nominal role in a drug deal. It was a sentence Reagan-appointed Judge Roger Vinson didn’t even want to dispense, but his hands were tied by mandatory sentencing schemes. Aside from making the U.S. the number one jailer in the world, here are some of the other shocking facts about the nature and impact of U.S. mass incarceration featured in the report:

  • Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., 500,000 are locked up for drug offenses – ten times more than there were in 1980. Researchers have found that these lock-ups have no concurrent effect on the illicit drug supply, as demand remains the same and replacement dealers are easy to come by.
  • Some 41,000 people in the United States are serving the once-uncommon sentence of life in prison without parole – a harsh punishment that is reserved in many other countries for only the most heinous crimes. In England, only 41 people are serving this sentence.
  • More than half of the incarcerated are locked up for nonviolent offenses.
  • Adjusted for inflation, state spending on corrections has more than tripled over the last 30 years, making it the fastest-growing budgetary item after Medicaid.
  • In the U.S. today, about 1 in 40 children, and 1 in 15 black children, have at least one parent in prison.
  • California spends more than 10 percent of its budget on prisons, and less than 8 percent on higher education. Thirty years ago, it spend 10 percent on higher education and just 3 percent on prisons.
  • Conservative social scientists who were once some of the primary proponents of tough criminal policies are now recommending diverting drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs and reducing the prison population by at least one-third.

These facts are animated by the stories of individuals like Stephanie George, who was a young single mother when she first started selling crack to pay the bills. After she went to jail once, she vowed never to risk being away from her children again. But when cocaine was found in her home (she said it did not belong to her), the volume of cocaine and her prior offense dictated the life without parole sentence. Her three young children, ages 5, 6, and 9, spent the rest of their childhoods with George’s sister, and George’s only way out is presidential clemency  —  a measure very rarely invoked by President Obama.