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Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

Mathew 7:15

By Daniel Tencer | Rawstory | Sept. 29, 2010

The US's exceptionally high rate of incarceration is causing economic damage not only to the people behind bars but to their children and taxpayers as a whole, a new study finds.

The study (PDF) from the Pew Research Center's Economic Mobility Project, released Tuesday, reports that the US prison population has more than quadrupled since 1980, from 500,000 to 2.3 million, making the US's incarceration rate the highest in the world, beating former champions like Russia and South Africa.

This means more than one in 100 Americans is in prison, and the cost of prisons to states now exceeds $50 billion per year, or one in every 15 state dollars spent -- a figure the study describes as "staggering."

According to the authors, one in every 28 children in the US has a parent behind bars -- up from one in 125 just 25 years ago. This is significant, the study argues, because children of incarcerated parents are much likelier to struggle in life.

A family with an incarcerated parent on average earns 22 percent less the year after the incarceration than it did the year before, the study finds. And children with parents in prison are significantly likelier to be expelled from school than others; 23 percent of students with jailed parents are expelled, compared to 4 percent for the general population.

"Both education and parental income are strong indicators of children’s future economic mobility," the survey notes. "With millions of prison and jail inmates a year returning to their communities, it is important to identify policies that address the impact of incarceration on the economic mobility of former inmates and their children."

In all, 2.7 million US children have parents behind bars, and "two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses," the study notes.

Not surprisingly, the statistics show large disparities when broken down by race. Among black children, fully one in nine, or 11.4 percent, have a parent in jail. For Hispanics, the number is one in 28, and for white children it's one in 57.

The study also finds that the US now has a prison population larger than the 35 largest European countries combined. The incarceration rate in the US is five times that of Great Britain -- 753 inmates per 100,000 people, compared to 151 inmates in the UK. Even the British incarceration rate is high compared to some countries: 96 in France and 88 in Germany, for example.

The cost of such a high incarceration rate hasn't been lost on lawmakers in this era of budget deficits. Over the past few years, numerous states have released prisoners early to reduce incarceration costs. California granted early release to some 1,500 inmates this year, and the state hopes to reduce its prison population by a total of 6,500.

But those early releases have proven controversial, both for political and public safety reasons. The New York Times reported earlier this year:

In February, lawmakers in Oregon temporarily suspended a program they had expanded last year to let prisoners, for good behavior, shorten their sentences (and to save $6 million) after an anticrime group aired radio advertisements portraying the outcomes in alarming tones. “A woman’s asleep in her own apartment,” a narrator said. “Suddenly, she’s attacked by a registered sex offender and convicted burglar.”

In Illinois, Gov. Patrick J. Quinn, a Democrat, described as “a big mistake” an early release program that sent some convicts who had committed violent crimes home from prison in a matter of weeks. Of more than 1,700 prisoners released over three months, more than 50 were soon accused of new violations.

An early release program in Colorado meant to save $19 million has scaled back its ambitions by $14 million after officials found far fewer prisoners than anticipated to be wise release risks. In more than five months, only 264 prisoners were released, though the program was designed to shrink the prison population by 2,600 over two years.

With concern growing about the cost -- both economic and social -- of incarceration, lawmakers have turned an eye to sentencing reform. But prospects for wholesale changes to sentencing in the US are dim, primarily because of the difficulty of selling "weaker" criminal punishments to a skeptical public.

This year, the Obama administration backed sentencing reform for crack cocaine, reducing the disparity between crack sentences and powder cocaine sentences on the basis that they discriminated along racial lines. But, as law professor Andrea Lyon noted at the Huffington Post, even that reform allowed for large disparities in sentences. "What was a 100 to 1 disparity is now 'only' an 18 to 1 disparity," she writes.

In Missouri, an innovative new law gives judges access to information about incarceration costs before they decide on punishment, as well as access to information on recidivism rates for various crimes. Lawmakers hope it will result in a more consistent application of the law.

Marijuana law reform could also have an impact, by simply reducing the number of crimes for which people can be jailed. Last year alone, there were more than 858,000 arrests in the United States for marijuana. That's down from a peak of 872,000 in 2007, but still near record highs. More than half of all drug arrests involved marijuana.

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