Our prisons: Jailing and failing

The U.S. prison system is in dire need of reform.

A recent special report by Ted Koppel featured the former anchorman inside a California prison. In a program aired on the Discovery Channel, Koppel tried to highlight serious flaws in California’s prison policies, namely its “three strikes” policy that imposes harsh sentences on habitual offenders. The result is a prison system designed for 100,000 that now houses more than 170,000.

The issue of growing prison populations is not limited to California. Minnesota has had one of the lowest per capita rates of incarceration, but Minnesota is now experiencing one of the fastest rates of prison growth in the nation. Nationally, our prison population has averaged an annual growth rate of 3.3 percent from 1995 to 2005 while the country’s population growth rate was near 1 percent.

There is certainly no easy solution to fixing our nation’s correctional policies, but it’s not working right now. We have a system that fails to rehabilitate offenders and is overly harsh on some nonviolent crimes. The current system does nothing to change the behavior of criminals. In 2002, 39 percent of inmates had served three or more prior sentences.

In his report, Koppel emphasized the need for increased opportunities for vocational training and additional anger management and drug rehabilitation programs. Investments in real rehabilitation would certainly benefit other community members. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95 percent of state prisoners will be released at some point, and a large percentage of those will commit more crimes in their communities and end up in jail again.

If nothing else, the cost of prison alone should be reason enough to change our policies. Paying for multiple trips to the Big House adds up for taxpayers. According to Koppel, the cost of keeping one prisoner locked up is around $40,000 per year. If additional training programs in prison could prevent even a small percentage of repeat offenders, it would be a great success. As Koppel likes to point out, a year in prison costs the same as a year at Harvard, the one difference being that taxpayers foot the bill.