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Demystifying Five Myths About U.S. Prisons

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It’s a myth that U.S. prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders, Fordham University law Prof. John Pfaff writes in a Washington Post roundup of prison myths. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), claims “we locked up more people for marijuana in 2017 than all the violent crimes combined.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says the prison system is defined by nonviolent people “stopped w/a dime bag.” Actually, under 15 percent of the prison population are incarcerated for drug crimes, though most Americans believe the figure to be 50 percent. The share of those in state prison for committing violence exceeds 55 percent.  Separately, critics point to companies that profit from incarceration.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) blamed private prisons for mass incarceration, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) says, “The private prison racket has got to end.” In fact, only 8 percent of prisoners are held in private facilities, and two-thirds of the money spent on prisons is on wages and benefits for public-sector employees.

Another myth: long sentences cause the prison population to age (in fact, “much of the aging of the prison population plausibly comes not from long sentences but from our inability to address late-age violence properly.”) Also, “Once a criminal, always a criminal?” as CBS News asked. Actually, “any one failure counts as recidivism.” It’s a myth that not sending someone to prison saves $35,000 a year. We spend $50 billion to lock up 1.4 million people in state prisons, about $35,000 per person per year. That is not what we save when we release a single inmate. If we don’t cut payroll in proportion to inmate population, the savings per prisoner will be much less. Other fixed costs, like water and heating, do not decline steadily with the inmate total. The real savings of reducing the prison population by one person is between $4,000 and $16,000.

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