Americans paid out a record $167 billion to operate the nation's swollen criminal justice system in 2001, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported Monday. While the BJS report did not address the role of drug prohibition in generating the massive spending, drug law enforcement contributes a sizeable share of that figure with about 1.5 million drug arrests nationwide in 2001 and drug offenders making up roughly one-quarter of all inmates in the nation's jails and prisons.
In 2001, every man, woman, and child in the United States paid $586 to finance the criminal justice system, including $254 per person for police protection, $200 per person to pay for prisons, and $130 per person for court and legal services. All that money provided jobs for almost 2.3 million people, including more than 1.1 million cops and nearly 750,000 prison guards.
The 2001 figure for total criminal justice spending, both in the states and federally, is the highest yet, but only the latest in a long line of increasing criminal justice budgets that date back to President Reagan's declaration of a real war on drugs in the 1980s. And prison spending is driving the increases. In 1982, BJS reported, prison spending was at $9.6 billion; by 2001, it had increased to $57 billion. Such increases are the inevitable consequence of criminal justice policies that have caused the number of prisoners in jail and prison to triple since 1985.
Indeed, criminal justice spending has increased at an annual 8% rate overall since the current binge began in the heady days of the Reagan Revolution. Spending in 2001 jumped more than $20 billion over 1999 levels, and per capita spending is now double what it was in 1982, the BJS reported.
"The first time I stood up and gave a public speech about the drug war back in 1997, I said it was a fraud," said Nora Callahan, director of the drug reform group the November Coalition (http://www.november.org), which focuses on freeing drug war prisoners. "That is even more true today. We spend all that money, and we're getting nothing for it but the destruction of people, families, and communities," she told DRCNet. "It doesn't matter if the crime rates are down -- there is a prison-industrial complex to keep propped up and running, and they can't keep it full without the war on drugs."
"These figures really point out the dramatic disjuncture between absolute crime levels and how we are spending our money," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project (http://www.sentencingproject.org), a Washington, DC-based group seeking alternatives to incarceration. "This is primarily the result of a policy shift in how we use the courts and the criminal justice system. We have made policy choices that result in more people going to prison and staying there longer," he told DRCNet. "That's why we are in this ironic situation, where crime went down in the 1990s but the prison population continued to increase. This tells us pretty clearly that we can control the size of the prison system and the amount of prison spending if policymakers choose to do so. But instead, they have made a set of decisions consciously aimed at expanding the system regardless of crime rates."
"We have been spending a lot of money for a long time, and this is starting to be felt in the states, if not the federal government," Mauer continued. "Fifteen years ago, they thought they could both build prisons and fund education, but now people realize they can't do both. Do you expand the prison system or do you fund basic services? In a number of states, this has already led to reconsideration of sentencing and drug policies," he pointed out. "This is happening not only because of the budget situation, but because there is also a growing recognition, particularly regarding substance abuse, that prison is not necessarily the best response. There is a greater public acceptance of a range of options for dealing with social problems, and more sophistication about the balance between prison spending and spending for other social needs."
If there are signs of sanity in the state legislatures now, said Mauer, there is little indication that it is catching on at the federal level. "In the federal system, the changes have outpaced even those in the states," he said. "At the federal level, neither Democrats nor Republicans have shown any interest in recent years in revisiting the sentencing and drug policies that have led to these record increases. The cost of incarceration is proportionately a much smaller part of the federal budget, so they don't feel it as much. And there is also the perception that sounding tough on crime is good politics, a perception that these days in more true in Washington than in state capitals."
More BJS report factoids: