Something must be wrong when a freedom loving country incarcerates nearly double its closest competitor
America’s broken justice system incarcerates an estimated 716 people per 100,000 citizens. By contrast, Russia stands at 484 per 100,000, China 121, and Iran 284. All countries most Americans consider to have dismal human rights records compared to the U.S.
A 2006 report by the U.S. Justice System found that over 7.2 million people were in prison, on probation, or on parole. That means roughly 1 in every 32 Americans is held by the Justice system. Approximately $60.3 billion is spent housing prisoners each year.
Over 60 percent of the prison population is serving sentences for non-violent drug related crimes. Blacks make up a majority of the population in this group. Even while the crime rate has statistically fallen, the prison population continues to grow. In part, this growth can be attributed to the increasing likelihood of being jailed for failure to pay fines and costs.
When every sentence is handed down by a court, the defendant is assessed a variety of fines and costs for the violation. Costs will include the fee for an appointed attorney, court costs and probation monitoring. The total can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars and in most cases is expected to be satisfied in full prior to the end of probation.
If the defendant is unable to pay (a high probability given a conviction makes it all but impossible to obtain employment) they are hauled back before the court. If the court finds that the defendant cannot pay, they can be sentenced to jail for the remainder of their probation or until they pay. This creates a vicious cycle without end.
Most State and U.S. Constitutions have made the practice of jailing people for unpaid debts unconstitutional. However, exceptions are made for money owed to the criminal justice system. The ACLU released the Outskirts of Hope, on court practices in Ohio.
The report told the story of one couple, John Bundren and Samantha Reed, who both had racked up court fines. Bundren’s, which traced back to underage drinking and public intoxication convictions from his teenage years, totaled $3,000. They paid her fines before his, so Bundren ended up spending 41 days in jail because they couldn’t pay them both.
The report also found that 22 percent of the arrests in Huron County, Ohio, were due to failure to pay fines. Each arrest warrant issued costs approximately $400 and it costs $65 a night to jail someone in Ohio. What this means is that jailing people for failure to pay fines actually ends up costing more money than the municipality collects. For example, Mecklenburg County, N.C., collected $33,476 in debts in 2009, but spent $40,000 jailing 246 debtors; a loss of $6,524.
A blind spot exist in the system that most of us don’t consider. Nearly all states prevent someone from voting after a felony conviction. In addition, 29 states bar felons from voting even after they serve their time. Several battleground states effectively bar a felon from voting for life. This means that 6 million people, 1 in 40, are now unable to vote, according to Mother Jones.
In three states; Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, at least 1 in 5 black Americans will be out of luck come Election Day. In the cases of Florida and Virginia, the numbers are sizeable enough to change the outcome in November. As Desmond Meade of the nonprofit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition put it to us last week:
If these people were able to vote, Florida would no longer be a swing state.”
More importantly, it means that politicians can lock up more citizens by criminalizing more types of behavior and not worry about losing their seat. Our broken justice system needs fixing and our politicians have no incentive to do it.