A new study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis puts the overall cost of incarceration in the United States, including its effect on families, children and overall communities, at more than $1 trillion. It's a sobering study, unique in its approach, but it raises troubling and complicated questions about the causes of societal problems and possible solutions. Focusing on the situations that often lead to incarceration, rather than the sheer number behind bars, will be a more effective approach for reforming America's criminal system.
As the study notes, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its people than any other nation. It has about 5 percent of the world's population but houses about 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
That is an astounding statistic that ought to give every American pause. Get-tough policies, beginning in the 1980s, led to three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences and other measures that guaranteed incarceration for many people who might have been more effectively treated through alternatives, including treatment for addictions.
At the same time, however, a couple of other trends are important to note.
The first is that overall crime has been in sharp decline over the past 40 years. As the Pew Research Center recently reported, various surveys show violent crime down by as much as 74 percent since 1993, using figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The murder rate has risen slightly in recent years, but not enough to offset dramatic declines. Also, surveys show most crimes go unreported, which may indicate a larger problem than what official statistics reflect.
But the apparent reduction in crime raises an interesting question. Is the nation's high incarceration rate a cause? If so, that is troubling, as well. Solving crime by warehousing troublemakers is no solution at all. It is a policy lacking in compassion and redemption.
The other trend has to do with the disintegration of the family. About 40 percent of all births in the United States are to unmarried women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among African-Americans, the figure is higher than 70 percent.
Plenty of evidence exists to show that children raised by single parents, which generally means a father is absent, are more likely to engage in criminal activity than those who have committed fathers at home. The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency has reported that fatherlessness is a reliable indicator of violent crime in a community.
The Washington University study reports that the children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely to end up in prison than their peers. They also are more likely to live in poverty, face a variety of emotional and behavioral problems and eventually become homeless than those whose parents are not imprisoned. When parents are released from prison, their earnings potential is greatly reduced from what it would have been before incarceration.
Yet it's unclear how much those children are damaged from living with a parent who is addicted or engaged in criminal activity in the first place, nor is it clear how much parents who end up in prison were committed to the welfare of their children.
Prison may be exacerbating a problem that already exists.
The situation, in other words, in complicated. Yet it is quite clear society would experience huge benefits if it could strengthen families and parental commitment to offspring.
Certainly, a greater investment in public education, particularly in underprivileged neighborhoods, could do much to prevent incarceration. Also, it's clear many people in the prison system do not belong there. They need treatment and help to allow them to overcome addictions and take responsibility for their lives.
Society would do well to counter the root causes of incarceration — the disintegration of the family, a lack of education choices, a lack of jobs and community investment in certain neighborhoods and the need for criminal justice reform — rather than to focus on the nation's large prison population alone.