The High Cost of Low-Level Offenders

By: Annie Bolthrunis, editor

After my last post regarding CLTL-type programs from people in treatment for addiction, I had a conversation with my father. He was curious about the number of people who are incarcerated for drug charges alone. The numbers are somewhat unclear, and after looking at various sources, the latest numbers indicate that about 55% of people sentenced to serve time are sentenced because of drug-related offenses. The percentage of people incarcerated is much lower, but still staggering – according to stopthedrugwar.org, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses was about 24% of the prison population in 2004, with every indication that that number will rise, rather than fall.

According to StoptheDrugWar.org, “Of the nearly 2.2 million people behind bars last year, 50.5% were serving time for violent crime. That means that more than 1.1 million people were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, mainly property and drug crimes.”

When I see statistics like this, what immediately comes to mind is, how much is this costing America? Most prisoners are Federally-run (although I’ve heard about privately-owned prisons being erected in states like Texas), and are therefore funded by tax-payers. It seems to me that more people should be upset about this, what with all the talk about tax rates circulating during this election cycle. Why do candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum support the drug war, when it’s costing the American people money? Couldn’t we cut taxes by eliminating mandatory prison terms and “three-strikes” laws in the cases of non-violent offenses?

It is strikingly clear that this is one of the purposes of Changing Lives. Of course, the main purpose is to empower people who have had their power taken away, to educate people who may not have had opportunities due to economic or social problems, and to provide support for people who need it most. However; the average cost of housing and feeding a single prisoner in the United States per year is about $25,000. Multiply that by 1.1 million prisoners serving time for non-violent offenses – $27,500,000,000 – and that doesn’t include paying guards, maintaining and up keeping facilities, and lawyers’ fees. Tw-Seven Billion Dollars, just to feed and house people who never hurt another person or animal.

The cost per day in Massachusetts to keep a person on parole or on probation is $3 to $8. The average cost per day in MA to keep an inmate in prison is $603 – far above the national average. It seems that courts would be tripping over themselves to initiate more programs like Changing Lives Through Literature in order to quell prison overcrowding and to alleviate some of the enormous cost of keeping inmates in prison.

Obviously, there are people who commit crimes who should be locked up – people who assault others, who traffic drugs, who rape and murder – those people should be locked up, and some of them should never be let out. But there are nonviolent crimes, such as prostitution and minor drug possession, that are directly related to lower education and lower socio economic status. These people don’t hurt anyone, and in many cases they may feel like they have no other choice. It seems like they’d be better served – and we’d be better served – educating these people, enlightening them, raising their self esteem, and getting them to a place where they can be contributing members of society. In locking them up we may lose them forever, either to their own despondency or to a life of more heinous crimes using tricks they may pick up while locked up with more violent offenders.

Although Changing Lives Through Literature cannot solve all of the country’s problems with prisons and offenders, it can certainly help. By empowering people who are downtrodden, Changing Lives is helping to shape citizens out of criminals. By giving courts an option besides jail, Changing Lives is helping the struggle with prison overcrowding, which helps not only taxpayers but the people who are in prison – or may end up there. By reaching out to offenders, Changing Lives is showing there are people out there who are willing to take the time to help people who are used to having to do everything themselves.

It’s become clear that our criminal justice system is flawed in many ways. I’m not a criminal justice major, nor do I have much experience with the court and court system, and I’ve never been to prison. I cannot describe these problems from first hand knowledge. I can, however, look at the facts and the figures and see that a program like Changing Lives Through Literature is aptly named – and should be similarly supported and promoted.


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6 thoughts on “The High Cost of Low-Level Offenders

  1. Annie: Yes, given the large number of people in prisons in this country, there seems little doubt that some major changes in public policy are in order. It is worth while to mention, in this context, that , to me at least, CLTL demonstrates that policy makers should think much more than they usually do about the power of literature to change lives.

  2. I have only a small quibble: I would argue that prostitution is not a victim-less crime, especially if the prostitute has AIDS. Specifically, I believe the John is more guilty and does more harm — to the prostitute, to himself and to his family — than the prostitute and deserves a more severe punishment.

    I think changing one’s life through literature requires some effort on the part of the subject. How does one induce that effort among a population of individuals who are where they are to a large degree because they have spent most of their lives avoiding effort. I’m not placing blame for this. There are many valid social and psychological reasons for this, but the fact remains that CLTL has to overcome a well-established inertia among most of its target population.

  3. I would call Changing Lives Through Literature a step in the right direction… I’m all for any step in the right direction… I personally have seen the change literature can make on incarcerated members of society…

  4. Definitely a step in the right direction! We all have to mindful about getting the word out about great programs like CLTL that can have a major impact on people’s lives.

  5. I think you’re probably right – prostitution isn’t victimless, but it’s also not usually violent – and if it is, the violence is usually committed by the John, who does deserve a higher degree of punishment.

    Overcoming the inertia and getting people interested in literature who have no background or personal interest in it is difficult; but putting a certain amount of pressure on people to succeed and participate in these programs is a good start. Until we figure out a way to get people coming in of their own accord.

  6. Great article. Low-level offending causes a huge amount of distress in the community, and can burden victims with significant financial costs and long-term impacts. It can also be the beginning of a steady escalation of offending.

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