Newcastle — An article in the August 10 Economist provided the disturbing graph repeated here. Mental hospitals have all but disappeared. Now when we observe aberrant behavior our solution is to put the victim in jail. Unbelievable!
The Economist tells the history of a Ms. Aldridge who “has been arrested 100 times, jailed 27 times for more than 1,000 days and spent a total of eight years in prison’ since 1994, all for trivial offenses typical of the mentally ill. “Ms. Aldridge is so impaired that one jail needed special arm coverings for her, like full-length oven gloves, to prevent her from ripping her veins out with her teeth. More recently, in prison, Ms. Aldridge ate her protective gauntlets. At only 42, Ms. Aldridge has already cost taxpayers $719,436 for her arrests and incarcerations.” The sheriff of Cook county is angry and frustrated about how fiscally reckless this is. Me too.
Apparently, in our zealous pursuit of incarceration to solve all our social shortcomings, even the mentally ill have fallen victim. Of course the bigger problem is our prison system itself. Since 1970 our prison population has grown sevenfold, largely because of the highly unsuccessful “War on Drugs.” One percent of our population is in jail; one in thirty-one is under some form of correctional control. And those are just the averages. If one discriminates by race or by age the numbers get much uglier.
We are the world’s most enthusiastic jailer, by a wide margin, for a number of reasons. Perhaps most significant is the fostering of fear and insecurity by our governments. Anyone seems suspicious, lock ‘em up. Another contributor has been mandatory, draconian sentencing for trivial offenses, e.g. possession of pot. And we do a poor job with recidivism. About two-thirds of prisoners released are rearrested within three years. My guess about this last is that prisons are too hospitable; no need to be responsible for oneself; free medical care-that’s pretty nice.
As indicated by Ms. Aldridge’s case, prison costs are prohibitive. Wikipedia cites, “In 2005, it cost an average of $23,876 dollars per state prisoner. State prison spending varied widely, from $45,000 a year in Rhode Island to $13,000 in Louisiana.” (What’s Louisiana doing right? “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”) In 2008 it cost an average of about $47,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison in California. Compare that with the $8800 per student that the state spent on higher education.
In Maine the situation is total chaos. Regional jails are funded by local property taxes and the state. Unfortunately, as we know, the state has no money and lacks the authority to print it. I could not unearth budget figures or inmate populations, but Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong has estimated that each inmate costs the county more than $200 per night. Let’s hope that’s an overestimate. Former governor Baldacci made the suggestion of having the state take over all jails and prisons, but the politics proved insurmountable.
The national prison situation is so dire it has finally aroused our somnambulant federal government. Attorney General Holder recently announced at a meeting of the American Bar Association that the time is here to reevaluate our treatment of drug offenses. He noted that federal prisoners are housed in facilities that are 40 percent over capacity. Almost half of the prisoners are doing time for drug-related offenses, and many have substance abuse disorders. According to the Justice Department, the price tag to taxpayers in 2010 was $80 billion.
What can we do? It’s so simple. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron published a 2008 study stating that the annual savings on enforcement and incarceration costs accrued through the legalization of drugs would amount to roughly $41.3 billion, with $25.7 billion being saved among the states and over $15.6 billion accrued for the federal government. Should we be clever enough to tax the legal drugs, as we do tobacco and alcohol, Miron estimates an additional revenue of $46.7 billion. That would wipe out Holder’s $80 billion and even leave a little over to build some new mental hospitals. What are we waiting for?