We have talked in the past about the undisputed fact that the United States is the incarceration capital of the world. We have the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on earth. With under 5% of the world’s population, we have 22% of the world’s prisoners.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, lots of things, among them the proliferation of criminal laws covering just about every aspect of a person’s life; mandatory minimum sentences that guarantee that in many cases the punishment does not fit the crime; the utter failure of the “war on drugs”; and the list goes on. But mass incarceration in the U.S. has another significant effect.

The Cost of Housing Phoenix Inmates

It costs money to house inmates. Whether it’s a city jail, a county jail, or a state prison, the budget effect is significant. And while people may argue about what goes into an analysis of daily cost per inmate, the numbers are huge. In Phoenix, for example, the city has paid more than $155 million to Maricopa County to house inmates over the past 15 years. On average, the city coughs up almost $12 million annually to the county for this service.

While the typical taxpayer might not feel the effect, that’s largely because the cost is buried in the municipal budget. Indeed, part of the cost appears as an add-on to your monthly water bill. The “jail tax” appears as a $7 million line item in the city’s current budget.

The Hidden Cost

Jails and prisons are big business, and we hear phrases like the “prison industrial complex.” Unfortunately, that is a reality. What makes it particularly disturbing is that private prisons, which rake in about $3.3 billion each year, have become a huge lobby. That means that state and federal legislatures receive millions of dollars in campaign contributions by companies with a vested interest not in making the community safe, but rather in putting as many people behind bars as possible – no matter what the effect on the community.

So when your congressman or state legislature supports a particular crime bill, or perhaps opposes alternative sentencing programs, it’s time to ask if he or she receives money from the private prison lobby. After all, in most other contexts, being paid for taking a particular action as a public servant would be called bribery. The fact that the contributions are legal does not mean that they lead to actions that are beneficial to the public.

Law Offices of David A. Black
40 North Central Avenue #1850
Phoenix, AZ 85004
(480) 280-8028


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