Expansion of the U.S. criminal justice system over the past three decades has come with a hefty price tag: $3.4 trillion nationwide and $83 billion in Illinois, according to a new report.
Expansion of the U.S. criminal justice system cost the country $3.4 trillion over the 30-year period from 1982 to 2012, according to a new report.
At the state level, Illinois spent $83 billion more on the criminal justice system over those three decades than it would had spending remained steady since 1982, the research found. The spending figures were adjusted for inflation in 2016 dollars.
Chicago-based Communities United wrote the report with Make the Road New York, the Right on Justice Alliance and Padres & Jovenes Unidos.
The groups, with assistance from the Grassroots Action Support Team, tabulated the cost of “mass incarceration and criminalization” while also detailing how so-called “surplus justice spending” could have been used on alternative strategies to “more effectively address the root causes of crime and meet critical community needs.”
Specifically, the report recommends that federal, state and local policymakers reduce “surplus justice spending” and reinvest those funds in living-wage jobs, education, housing, health care, community wraparound supports and clean, renewable energy.
Ron Taylor with the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations was among several faith leaders who joined the groups along with formerly incarcerated individuals in releasing the report Monday.
“With $3.4 trillion, we could have ended inter-generational poverty in this country and created a much brighter past, present and future for every U.S. resident,” Taylor said in a statement. “We cannot afford to make the same mistakes over the next 30 years, when the consequences of our misplaced priorities will only worsen.”
Jim Freeman, with the Grassroots Action Support Team, explained the report’s focus on the 1982 to 2012 period.
“While the justice system in the U.S. had been growing since at least the early 70s, that growth really took off in the early 80s, where you start to see really dramatic jumps in how much we’re spending per year on corrections, on police, on the court system,” he said. “We used that as a starting point.”
The report, Freeman said, aims to show the “sheer magnitude” of the criminal justice system’s expansion.
According to the research, there are nearly eight million adults and youth incarcerated or within the U.S. probation and parole systems. That translates into 1 in 40 U.S. residents being “either in prison, in jail, on probation or parole, or otherwise under control of the justice system,” the report reads.
Broken down by race, 1 in 18 black residents and 1 in 34 Latino residents were in the criminal justice system in 2013, compared with 1 in 55 white residents, according to the research.
In Illinois, the state saw its criminal justice spending increase from $4 billion in 1982 to $8.5 billion in 2012, the most current year for data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, said the report’s findings were shocking, but not surprising.
“I am not surprised by it because I have spent literally the last three decades working in the juvenile justice system,” Biehl said. “But I think it is a very damning piece of information for our state to be looking at about how much we actually spend on that system, and how little we spend on what I would call community investment or prevention systems.”
The report sought to put the “surplus justice spending” into context.
According to the data, Illinois spends $4.5 billion more per year on the justice system than it did in 1982. That’s far more than the $3 billion it would cost to create 30,000 new “living wage” jobs in the state, the report estimates. In another example, the groups say it would cost the state $1.3 billion to hire 20,000 new social workers, psychologists, conflict mediators and mental health and drug treatment counselors.
Efforts are underway in Illinois to reform the criminal justice system. Among other measures, Illinois has recently enacted various juvenile justice reforms and decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.
Gov. Bruce Rauner also created a state commission tasked with developing criminal justice and sentencing reforms. The commission has been charged with proposing ideas to cut the state’s current prison population by 25 percent come 2025.
Biehl described the commission as “a very good step in the right direction.” However, she wondered how the state would achieve the “laudable goal that the governor has set out, which is to reduce the prison population by 25 percent in the next decade, without an investment in community.”
“Without that I don’t understand, even [with] the best intentions, how it’s going to work,” she said. “I think the very well-intentioned stakeholders and lawmakers need to think about budgeting regarding a shifting of our monies and investing in the community.”
Biehl said the state budget impasse hasn’t helped the situation.
“What we see on the ground is that the budget impasse has caused a lot of small community-based agencies to have to close their front doors and to not be able to deliver the services that we need,” she explained. “I think that even if they pass a budget this year — which I am really hoping they do — you’ve now pushed those community agencies back, and I don’t know how we’re going to regain even the traction that we had in terms of community investments” and social service agencies.