Thoughts on the Election

The election is over and most of us are happy about that. Whether your candidate won or lost, most folks are ready to get on with their lives. However, I want to suggest that we consider getting ready for the next campaign season by getting familiar with an oft-ignored topic: the cost to society of mass incarceration. As I watched the pundits discuss why particular candidates won or lost, the discussion inevitably came back to themes related to the economy, the debt, and the size of our state and national governments. This led me to consider one issue that none of the candidates — local, state or federal — discussed during their campaigns: the cost to society and to the tax payers of incarceration. The criminal justice system is incredibly expensive. And, the burden on the taxpayer keeps rising. The number of inmates over the age of 50 has grown incredibly. These inmates have more health needs than younger inmates. The burden of caring for these inmates falls upon the institutions that house them. The number of female inmates has risen at rates three to four times the rate of increase among male inmates. Many of these inmates leave behind children who must be cared for by state agencies. Last, the sheer number of incarcerated individuals in the United States is unprecedented. We now incarcerate more convicts than any time during our country’s history (adjusted for population), even though crime rates have decreased dramatically over the past several decades. We now incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, including China. No politician wants to discuss these matters because no one has ever gotten elected by being “soft on crime.” Most politicians believe if they broach the subject, they will be lambasted by their opponents for being weak or too liberal. Thus, if the politicians won’t discuss it on their own, we, as citizens, need to begin asking candidates the tough questions about these issues. What is their plan for paying for the tens and hundreds of thousands of people that are incarcerated each year for alcohol and drug related offenses? If they support long mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” laws, are they prepared to pay the medical bills for inmates that get old and contract diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s? It may seem premature to be discussing these things the day after an election. However, it will only be a few months before the next round of campaigning begins. You can’t begin preparing too soon because the problem isn’t going away.