Incarceration rates in the United States have exploded since the 1970s. The rate has increased sevenfold, from 0.1% of the population in jail (1 out of every 1,000 people) to the current rate of 0.7%. And Virginia ranks 14th nationwide in highest rates of incarceration. The United States leads the world in both the highest rate and highest total number of people incarcerated -- Americans make up less than 5% of the world's population, but we have 25% of the world's incarcerated population.
This unprecedented level of incarceration comes at a tremendous cost to us:
It's costing us $31,240 per prisoner, per year (VA Dept. of Corrections, 2018)
The Dept. of Corrections spent $1.2 Billion last year (and this doesn't include the costs of local jails)
In 2018, Roanoke County alone spent $8.062 Million on local jails. This number is equal to almost 9% of the money we collected from real property taxes in 2018.
If this increase in incarceration resulted in a reduction in crime, then perhaps that might justify the cost -- unfortunately, it doesn't. Study after study has shown that incarceration has almost no effect on reducing crime rates, and the increase in incarceration rates was not in response to rising crime rates. Most crime rates have been in steady decline since the 90s, even in states and countries which have kept their levels of incarceration at historically low levels.
The number one factor that has driven this prison increase has been our policies on the prosecution of drug crimes. Ironically, this is one of the only areas where the crime rate is rising. The system isn't working.
We have to stop treating incarceration as our only solution to crime, and especially to the public health problem of drug addiction. Mass incarceration is an extremely expensive way to fail to solve this problem. In case after case we are paying substantial amounts of money to imprison drug users for years, only to have them re-join society in a much more dangerous situation after they've served their sentence. Let's stop talking about "getting tough on crime", and let's start work to actually reduce crime, making our community safer and better.