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Know Your Rights
Source: Make the Road New York
Subject: Policing and Criminal Justice
Type: Pubs & Reports

The $3.4 Trillion Mistake: The Cost of Mass Incarceration and Criminalization, and How Justice Reinvestment Can Build a Better Future for All


Imagine if, back in 1982, our federal, state, and local policymakers had assembled the U.S. public and offered us a choice between two paths that we could take over the next 30 years. Path One would involve using our tax dollars to invest in the massive expansion of our justice system and a tripling of our incarcerated population, but would not substantially improve public safety. Path Two would make the same level of investment in providing tens of millions of youth with higher-quality educational and developmental opportunities, creating millions of living-wage jobs, dramatically expanding the availability of affordable housing and first-rate healthcare, and making meaningful advances in addressing the effects of environmental degradation, while keeping the justice system at the same size. Would anyone have chosen Path One?

Nevertheless, that is effectively what we did. Over the last 30+ years, the U.S. has invested heavily in police, prosecutors, courts, jails, and prisons to address not only public safety issues but also public health concerns such as the effects of poverty, mental illness, and drug use. As a result, the justice system now intersects with our lives far more often, and far more harshly, than ever before, and there are many millions more people that are either under the control of, or employed by, that system.

For example, in 1982, the U.S. already had an expansive justice system, totaling $90 billion in justice spending, including police, corrections, judicial/legal, and immigration enforcement expenditures. Indeed, our incarcerated population then – 621,885 – would still rank as third-highest in the world today, behind only China and Russia. Nevertheless, we continued to aggressively expand both the size and role of our justice system, particularly as a result of the escalation of the “War on Drugs” and the increased use of the “tough on crime” approach. Thus, by 2012, total justice spending had increased by 229% to nearly $297 billion.

Even more staggering is the cumulative impact of those shifts in resources. Over the 30-year period from 1983 to 2012, we spent $3.4 trillion more on the justice system than we would have if it had stayed the same size as it was in 1982. This “surplus justice spending” turned our already-huge justice system into the one we have today, in which there are nearly eight million adults and youth behind bars or within the probation and parole systems in the U.S. In other words, 1 in 40 U.S. residents is either in prison, in jail, on probation or parole, or otherwise under control of the justice system. For communities of color that have been devastated by decades of over-investment in flawed and ineffective criminal justice strategies and racially discriminatory policing – and under-investment in meeting critical community needs – the impact has been particularly severe. For example, approximately 1 in 18 Black residents, and 1 in 34 Latino residents, were under the control of the justice system in 2013 (compared to 1 in 55 White residents).

However, despite the massive investment in the expansion of our justice system, it is not at all clear that this approach has been effective at promoting public safety. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that it has been far less effective than other public safety strategies available to us. Moreover, there is an enormous amount of research demonstrating that the harms caused by this approach far exceeded whatever benefits have been realized, particularly with regard to the low-income communities of color that have been suffocating under extreme versions of these mass incarceration and criminalization approaches.

Of course, to create safe communities, we must be able to respond effectively to violence and crime. But the most effective response to such actions need not involve the justice system, and our understanding of public safety should not begin nor end with the justice system. We must recognize that communities cannot be safe if there aren’t enough good jobs and affordable housing opportunities for the people who need them, or if residents’ mental, physical, and behavioral health needs are not being met. Communities cannot be safe if children aren’t being provided with high-quality educational opportunities, wraparound supports, and access to good afterschool and employment opportunities when needed. Communities cannot be safe when there is deep social, economic, and political inequality within them, or if they are facing the threats posed by environmental degradation and climate change. It is common sense – and supported by research – that addressing these basic needs will result in far less crime and violence and far fewer people entering the criminal justice system, yet all across the country, we have continually neglected these other key components of safety.

Imagine, however, if our choices had been different. What if, instead of spending so many of our resources responding to crime and other symptoms of unhealthy communities, we had instead focused more on preventing crime and addressing its root causes? What if we hadn’t made the long series of policy decisions that moved us from $90 billion in annual justice spending to $297 billion? What could we have done with the extra $3.4 trillion that we would have saved over that 30-year period?

The short answer to all of those questions is that the $3.4 trillion in surplus justice spending could have instead created a much brighter past, present, and future for every single resident of the U.S. With those resources, we could have made life-changing investments in millions of families. Countless struggling communities could have used those resources to meet the needs of their residents. Millions of children who have had their educational and developmental needs neglected over the last 30 years could have had more opportunities to improve the quality of their lives.

That is just a thought experiment, but it has real implications, because we do not have to make that same mistakes over the next 30 years. However, if we do not change course, the consequences of surplus justice spending will only worsen over time. For example, even if we do not continue to increase our justice spending and merely maintain our current level, the $3.4 trillion mistake of the last 30 years will create an additional $6.2 trillion mistake over the next 30 years. That amounts to an average expense of $53,356 for every household in U.S and enormous budgetary implications for every state in the U.S. (a map with state-by-state figures is included in Part Three).

Alternatively, with $6.2 trillion we could make the kind of transformative investments in living-wage jobs, education, housing, healthcare, community wraparound supports, and clean, renewable energy sources that we missed out on as a result of our choices over the last 30 years. For example, with those resources, we could eliminate inter-generational poverty, dramatically improve the quality of life in hundreds of communities across the country, and/or transition most of the country to 100% clean and renewable energy sources. Not only would these alternative investments address the root causes of crime and reduce the need for incarceration, but they would also have a variety of additional, positive spillover effects. Plus, in stark contrast to the escalating costs of mass incarceration and criminalization, they would produce reduced government spending over time.

Thus, to end the cycle of mass incarceration and criminalization while also actively building stronger, safer, and healthier communities across the country, we propose the creation of a robust and comprehensive “justice reinvestment” initiative that shifts public dollars away from our bloated criminal justice system and addresses our most acute education, employment, healthcare, housing, and environmental needs. While there have already been some justice reinvestment efforts in states and localities across the country, they have been far too limited in scope to meaningfully address the challenges we face. They have also failed to include in meaningful ways the communities that have been most affected by mass incarceration and criminalization. Thus, we propose the following action steps to expand upon, deepen, and transform justice reinvestment efforts nationally (Read more…)