August 25, 2009

Better Health Care, Better Prisons?

By Bernice Yeung | Crowdfund this with Spot.Us
Part of the Prisons & Public Health news blog

In a recent New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof cites the case of Curtis Wilkerson as an example of lopsided budget priorities (“Priority Test: Health Care or Prisons?”), wherein health care is considered too expensive, yet long and costly prison terms are the norm.

Wilkerson, you see, is a California inmate who became entangled in the state’s three-strikes laws; he’s now serving a life sentence for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks (strike one and two both involved abetting a robbery in 1981 when he was 19).

California doles out $49,000 a year on each inmate housed in a state prison, and $216,000 a year on each young person incarcerated through the juvenile justice system, Kristof notes, while in contrast, the Bay Area’s Urban Strategies Council has found that only $8,000 is spent on each Oakland public school student.

Prison spending has been growing for decades in California and across the country [PDF], along with incarceration rates, under the “tough on crime” banner.

Yet as many public-policy makers are beginning to realize, being tough on crime doesn’t mean that they’re being safer or smarter about it.

Consider illegal drugs and public health.

According to the FBI, most people are serving time behind bars because they’ve committed a drug crime. The agency notes that “law enforcement made more arrests for drug abuse violations (an estimated 1.8 million arrests, or 13 percent of the total number of arrests) than for any other offense in 2007 (the most recent year that official statistics are available).”

On top of that, federal statistics from 2004 show that 17 percent of state prisoners and 18 percent of federal inmates say that they landed in lock-up committing a crime to get money for drugs.

In other words, a notable number of non-violent criminals — who are also disproportionately black [PDF] — are being sent to prison because they are drug addicted and unhealthy.

And then a good majority of them are released.

As I have reported in the past, many parolees are often released battling the same drug addiction that landed them in prison in the first place, which only makes it easier to commit another drug crime or violate their parole.

And then the incarceration cycle begins anew.

So in the end, is our choice really between spending tax dollars on health care and prisons? If we prioritized health care (including mental health and addiction services), how would that impact our prison spending?

Let me know your thoughts, and stay tuned as this blog continues to explore the issue.

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