For many in the United States, the criminal justice system is a quiet reality. Police or court officials may be present in a community but interactions are periodic, and often in passing.
For some communities however, such as communities of color and communities in poverty, the criminal justice system is a daily reality.
Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has ballooned more than 290 percent, simultaneously increasing expenses. Adjusted for inflation, the President's 2012 request for criminal justice programs is 413 percent higher than in 1983. This spending increases consistently despite political party affiliation or changes in crime rates.
Much of this growth is due to the "War on Drugs," which has disproportionately impacted communities of color for the past three decades. For example, although African Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of monthly drug users, they are 59 percent of those convicted of drug charges and 74 percent of drug offenders sentenced to prison.
Continued support for such a system while Congress cuts spending on programs proven to decrease incarceration--such as education, public housing and alternatives for juveniles in the system--is confounding.
For example, the President's 2012 budget request (<http://www.justicepolicy.org/research/2090>):
Congress and the President should instead craft a public safety strategy which invests in education and stable housing which can lower levels of interaction with the criminal justice system.
According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) <http://www.justicepolicy.org/research/1904>, "stable housing is one of the most significant factors affecting the risk of involvement in the criminal justice system." A 2004 study of nine different cities found that jail costs were two to three times higher than permanent supportive housing or shelter costs. However, Congress is cutting funding for public housing construction and maintenance more than 50 percent.
Greater educational achievement is also linked to lower incarceration rates and is less expensive: "A 5 percent increase in male graduation rates could yield over $7 billion in benefits to the U.S. annually in terms of reduced crime and increased earnings. (JPI)" In some states, funding for corrections has increased almost three times as fast as education in the past 30 years.
The United States can no longer afford to support this system morally or financially. Congress should craft a federal budget which invests in assistance for basic needs to communities of color and poor communities, and decreases its misguided dependency on incarceration. Congress and the President must make reforming the criminal justice system a priority.
The country cannot cut spending for federal housing, education or other basic needs while increasing funding for prisons. The result will not only be increased incarceration, but increased racial inequality and poverty for those the system affects most.
For more information on MCC's work in promoting fair and inclusive responses in times of conflict, crime and injustice, see <http://us.mcc.org/programs/peacebuilding>.