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Home » News » Criminal Justice: Is Prison Worth Its Cost?

Criminal Justice: Is Prison Worth Its Cost?


Each of us has a stake in our criminal justice system, whether we’re a presently or formerly incarcerated person, a family member, a criminal justice employee or administrator, a community member, a business owner, or a tax-payer. Increasingly, people on both sides of the aisle support criminal justice reform, whether it’s to save taxpayer money or to assure justice, equality, and human rights. And everyone wants change only if it maintains personal and community safety.

In Pennsylvania, as around the country, we’ve seen greatly increased incarceration rates over the past several decades. We rank second in the nation regarding the number of people under court supervision (probation and parole). The length of this supervision, on average, is significantly longer in Pennsylvania than in almost every other state.

So, it’s important to ask ourselves if locking up and tracking so many people has made us significantly safer.

Those involved with our criminal justice system face a lot – whether before, during, or after court supervision and incarceration. Folks returning to the community after incarceration deal with the same challenges as the rest of us – employment, affordable housing, transportation, child-care, access to physical and mental health care – with the additional burden of a criminal record.

You might think, “well then, they shouldn’t have broken the law”. And you’d be right. Nevertheless, the system is often stacked against those least able to negotiate it. As with so much else, privilege, race, and means mitigate negative effects.

What are the issues?

Fiscal and human cost: About one of every five county tax dollars goes to the Adams County Adult Correctional Complex. If you add the cost of the District Attorney and Public Defender offices, it increases to about 25% of the county budget. And that’s not including some major administrative, workforce, and physical plant costs. So, at least 2 of every 5 county tax dollars go to criminal justice.

It costs an estimated $36,000 per inmate per year to keep someone in jail. Is incarceration worth this cost and disruption in human lives? Is it necessary to keep us safer? Some people absolutely need to be incarcerated. But most at our local jail are there for non-violent crimes. Might these funds be more effectively shifted to community support, prevention, and human services? Preventing people from entering the criminal justice system and diverting them out quickly if they end up there could represent major taxpayer savings.

Jail populations have higher rates of mental illness, substance use disorders, and trauma histories than the general population. Individuals with these histories benefit most from support, empowerment, treatment, increased self-efficacy, and positive integration into a community. Incarceration, by its nature, doesn’t just punish. It also disempowers, dehumanizes, stigmatizes, frustrates and isolates.

Due to budget constraints, county jails are able to provide only limited services. How effective is it to incarcerate people for months waiting to begin treatment for substance use disorders? Is this the best use of our tax dollars? Is it the most humane option? Does it keep us safer?

Disproportionate burden on the disenfranchised: Those in poverty are more at risk to be jailed or to have their court supervision extended for technical violations, such as missing Probation meetings due to lack of transportation. Fines and fees can be high enough that someone living at or near poverty has little hope of paying it off. For example, one fines and fees schedule for a second Adams County DUI offense added up to $2680.30. As with all fines, this is going to hit someone of limited means much harder than someone who can simply hand over their credit card with hardly a thought.

Due to life instability, this can become a cycle of increasing fines, technical violations, re-incarceration, and new fines, with continued inability to pay. It can become a long-term poverty-based life of detention and supervision.

Of course, none of us wants impaired drivers on the road. They cause untold loss and heartache. But, in some counties, alternatives such as treatment courts, have yielded positive results. Judges, understandably, tend to be wary of diversionary courts, as they are more labor intensive for the judge. But how might we advocate that diversionary courts be at least given the serious consideration they deserve? How might we advocate for humane, effective, and fiscally responsible change?

Violations of due process: The routine use of pre-trial detention, as well as the routine use of cash bail without due process, violates our core American principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. Locking someone up in pre-trial detention to await a hearing often goes on not just for days, but for weeks or even months. Even if the charges are eventually reduced or dropped, the person may have already lost their job, health care, housing, possessions, and even custody of their children. Pre-trial detention is warranted, of course, for someone who is a flight risk or who poses a risk to public safety. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

Lack of data collection or dissemination: It’s hard to tell how effective all this jailing and supervision is. Maybe the data are there. But it’s hard for the public to find it. How might we have more transparency? What’s important to track and how creative are we being in challenging established policies and procedures?

For example, the pandemic may actually present us with an opportunity. Due to Covid, our Adams County judges have been turning more to alternates such as house arrest (confinement to the home with electronic monitoring), in lieu of pre-trial detention and incarceration for revocations.

If there is the will to do so, our community might have a unique opportunity to determine the effectiveness of these incarceration alternatives for non-violent offenders. Do these individuals on house arrest show up for their hearing and do they stay out of further trouble before their hearing? If it’s working out well enough to incarcerate fewer people during Covid, could we make this a priority once the pandemic eases?

The operation of our justice system is largely determined by our judges, commissioners, and District Attorney. They decide whether we use diversionary programs such as treatment courts, if and when we detain people pre-trial, if and how we use cash bail, how aggressively we prosecute low-level crimes, who we supervise and for how long, and what services we offer. Our current system has very good, smart, and dedicated people working in it. This is not meant to be a criticism of them.

But, in this time of re-imagining our world, might there be room to somehow include citizen voices regarding our community’s approach to justice? Isn’t it past time to hear the voices of the underrepresented in this discussion? How can we examine the data that support current practices or suggest other approaches? How can we determine in what ways the system serves us well, what it might do better, how it keeps us safe, and what it costs us as taxpayers and as human beings? Clearly, there are more questions than answers. Positive change starts with asking the questions.

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