Two Million People and $70 Billion

These numbers could be associated with the population and gross domestic product of a small country, but the numbers really reflect the number of people in prison in the United States and the amount of taxpayer money that is spent on imprisoning them. As a recent NPR article reported, drug laws that have been on the books for the last few decades have resulted in an explosion in the prison population. Now that the states and the federal government are strapped for cash, policy makers are beginning to rethink the amount of resources they spend on housing nonviolent offenders. As the NPR article noted “Half a million Americans are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Those inmates make up 48 percent of the inmate population in federal prisons.” These startling statistics are due largely to the policy of enacting mandatory minimums for certain crimes, and many of those crimes include drug related offenses.

The debate about how to reduce the prison population is still in the beginning stages. As NPR noted, “Supporters of mandatory minimums say the policy has helped reduce crime in some cities, including New York, and they point to modest declines in the use of some drugs, particularly cocaine.” Now would be the appropriate time for policy makers to seriously consider ways to control costs of prisons because federal and some state budget deficits continue to strain the economic growth of our economy.


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