Unnecessary incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers $20 billion a year, Brennan Center study says



A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice finds that “unnecessary incarceration” is eating up billions in taxpayer dollars while not making communities safer.

Many of the country’s inmates shouldn’t be imprisoned, the Brennan Center concluded. In particular, nearly 40 percent of the country’s inmates are being incarcerated “without a sufficient public safety rationale. They include low-level offenders who should never have been jailed, according to the center, and violent criminals whose sentences are too severe. 

If those 576,000 prisoners were released, taxpayers would save about $20 billion a year.

“This sum is enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers. It is greater than the annual budgets of the United States Departments of Commerce and Labor combined,” according to the report.

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Nonviolent offenders make up a quarter of the current U.S. prison population. Those inmates, the Brennan Center contends, would be better served by probation, community service, or mental health and drug treatment. 

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The nonprofit’s suggested solution is a mix of reducing maximum sentences for violent offenders and not jailing low-level criminals at all.

Brennan Center attorney L.B. Eisen, one of the authors of the study, said imprisonment often starts a hard-to-break cycle for many offenders.

“You have all these collateral consequences: an inability to get a job because you have a record, an inability to get public housing. Your family may have abandoned you, or your spouse may have moved on, your children may have moved away,” Eisen said in an interview.

She said other studies have demonstrated that longer sentences increase someone’s probability of committing another crime once released.

“We know that sentencing people for a longer amount of time has little to no effect on public safety, and can even harm it. Many studies have shown that lower-level offenders, in particular, can learn criminal behaviors behind bars,” Eisen said.

The U.S., with more than 2.2 million inmates, has more prisoners than any other country. That number encompasses those held on juvenile detention centers; immigration holding centers; military prisons; and local jails. 

The U.S. Department of Justice said half of those housed in state prisons are violent criminals. Criminologists point out that current incarceration levels are largely driven by harsh sentencing guidelines enacted in response to violent crime waves of past decades. 

In Pennsylvania, the more than 51,000 inmates in state prisons and more than 30,000 in county jails make up an incarcerated population 50 percent larger than a decade ago, according to the ACLU. That comes just as prison populations in New Jersey, New York and other states are shrinking.

Earlier this year, Philadelphia won $3.5 million to reduce its jail population, mostly by rethinking how defendants await trial.

The Brennan Center’s Eisen said many of those inmates are serving time on repeat offenses.

“About two-thirds of people who are incarcerated return to prison within three to five years,” she said. “So we know that our criminal justice system and our prisons, they’re not rehabilitating people.”

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