This past week, a massive class-action lawsuit was filed against Cook County for alleged abuses contributing to a “sadistic culture” within the Cook County Jail. While this allegation of massive abuse of those incarcerated at the nation’s largest jail certainly warrants individual attention, it seems that the problems within the jail are symptoms of a nationwide issue: justice department funding.
As unfortunate as it might sound, the way our justice system functions is entirely dependent on how much money is available. The accusation at Cook County Jail (detailing the beatings, verbal assaults and general misconduct by correctional officers) blames, in part, the jail’s inability to “redress the well-documented overcrowding crisis” for many of the violations. Yet the problem for Cook County is not that those incarcerated exceed the jail’s capacity, but rather that there are not enough trained correctional officers on staff.
In 2010, a survey of 40 states showed these states exceeded their collective corrections budget by $5.4 billion. The total amount dedicated to prison spending between all forty states was only $39 billion, indicating a dire budget problem. Statistics like these cause many to make the tired argument that “we give criminals too much.” However a closer examination of why the costs are so high, hopefully, will yield better suggestions.
Currently, about 6 percent of the overall correctional spending in the U.S. goes toward educational programs. The already little spending dedicated to these programs (for something that is supposed to be “correctional”) seems to indicate that other areas might be better for budgetary trimming. Yet Illinois supported the implementation of a program that cut meals three-a-day down to two to save money. The move ended up costing $200,000 per prison to change. There probably is some waste regarding inmate services, but attempts to reduce the budget by cutting meals or programs won’t balance the budget.
Instead of focusing on ways to cut spending per inmate, the U.S. should simply acknowledge that we do not have enough money to fund our current rate of incarceration. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has held the top incarceration rate worldwide since 2002. More inmates mean higher costs, which can potentially lead to further problems for the jails and prisons themselves. The Cook County lawsuit clearly stems from overworked and undertrained guards, something that could easily be remedied with more workers and a more intensive training program. Yet, these things cannot be funded if the current incarceration rate does not fall.
In my opinion, the only solution is to change the way we treat “victimless crimes.” Jails and prisons alike are filled with nonviolent offenders, many of whom earned their stay through simple drug possession. As articulated in some of my past articles, we have a clear and present need to rethink the way we treat drugs and their users in this country. A simple switch in sentencing (community service, drug/alcohol classes, etc.) could result in billions of dollars of savings. Instead, many states have implemented early release programs to cut down on costs.
There will always be problems with getting enough government funding to the correctional facilities, but it is important that the justice system make the right changes to save money. Criminals are still humans, and they deserve every program that the government can offer during incarceration. Through adaptations to sentencing nonviolent offenders, the U.S. can reduce inmate numbers. The government has a chance to ensure that those who are incarcerated are treated justly, with an ample amount of properly trained officers and programs that will provide offenders with the skills they need to return to society fit and never again see the inside of a cell.