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America's Foremost Institution: Prison

September 22, 2016, on Criminal Defense Articles |

In the United States, spending on prisons has increased at substantially higher rates than spending on schools. As Pacific Standard Magazine explains, state and local government spending on prisons has increased at three times the rate as spending on K-12 education between 1979 and 2013.

From 1979 to 2013, there was a 107 percent increase in the amount of taxpayer money going towards education, compared with a 324 percent rise in the amount of taxpayer money going to incarcerating citizens. 

Data comparing spending on prisons versus community colleges and other post-secondary institutions is even more troubling, with an 89 percent increase in money going to prisons at the same time as spending on public universities and community colleges remained flat.

Pacific Standard argues that the investments that are being made suggest the U.S. prioritizes prisons over school kids and that prisons, not schools, are now the foremost American institution.  The dramatic rise in spending on incarcerating citizens is undeniably troubling and those who become caught up in the expansive criminal justice system need to ensure they are represented by an Albany criminal defense attorney who can help them protect their rights.

Spending on Prisons is Outpacing Spending on Schools

There are many reasons why U.S. taxpayers have been devoting more money to incarcerating citizens.  The biggest problem is mass incarceration in the United States. When factoring in private prisons, as well as state and federal prisons, there are 716 people imprisoned for every 100,000 people in the U.S.  This is a dramatic increase compared with 131 residents imprisoned per 100,000 people in 1978. 

A look at the total number of people imprisoned illustrates the stark rise in incarceration rates. There are now 2.3 million people living in prison in America, which is a 400 percent increase over 40 years.

The big rise in prisoners primarily occurred due to more people being incarcerated by the states, rather than by the federal government.  Federal prisons account for only 13 percent of the overall prison population, although this can be explained in part by the fact that much of criminal law is state law and there are fewer federal crimes than state crimes.

There are lots of reasons why both states and the federal government are putting more people in jail, but one of the biggest drivers of mass incarceration is the rise in the number of crimes subject to mandatory minimum sentences.  Mandatory minimum sentences are especially common for both state and federal drug crimes. 

While the laws imposing mandatory minimums were originally intended to make sure drug traffickers and drug kingpins faced lengthy sentences, the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines have actually had the biggest impact on people charged with relatively minor or low level drug offenses. 

The Pacific Standard article indicates that “disproportionately harsh punishments for possessing small quantities of narcotics” have “kept America’s prison population growing even as its crime rate declined.”

States and the federal government need to realize the adverse impact of current criminal justice laws and the downsides of investing in prisons instead of schools. Unless and until criminal justice reform occurs, defendants also need to ensure they are very proactive in protecting their rights in the era of mass incarceration. Contact an Albany criminal defense attorney at The Law Office of James E. Tyner, PLLC today for help.

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