No matter how you approach the issue, we pay far too much money to put far too many people in prison. The United States has less than 5% of the world's population, but 23.4% of the world's prison population. Almost 1% (0.7%) of us are currently in prison with 3.1% of all American adults under some form of probationary supervision.
And you can bet that this is expensive. According to federal estimates, we spend $28,284.16 per year per prisoner, with an average daily cost of $70.56. In Maryland, we pay more. For FY2010, Maryland taxpayers paid $836.2 million (combination of the Dept. of Corrections budget and other prison related costs) to incarcerate 21,786 Marylanders. The average annual cost per inmate was $38,383 (and before you start thinking the prisoners are having lobster for lunch, recall that a good amount of any government cost is personnel). Comparatively, Maryland's per-pupil spending for 2010 was $14,244.
Why am I throwing so many stats at you this early in the morning? Because it may be time for Maryland to re-evaluate its criminal code, particularly as it relates to the criminalization of marijuana. Whether you want to see this as a fiscal issue, a civil rights issue, or a libertarian issue, it doesn't matter. What should be offensive to all of us is that we spend over twice as much money ruining lives than we do building them up.
In Maryland, possession of marijuana for personal use is a misdemeanor, carrying with it a jail time of up to one year an a $1,000 fine. Despite the light sentence, make no mistake that people do go to jail in Maryland for possession of marijuana. In places like Montgomery County, marijuana makes up the majority of drug-based offenses, up to 74% in 2010. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly passed "Marijuana Reform" with a law that lowers the maximum penalty for possession of 10 grams or less to 90 days and a $500 fine. Another law passed last year made marijuana possession a citable offense, meaning that an officer could arrest someone found in possession of marijuana, but could not jail him for that offense alone.
The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado (where they can tax and regulate the drug) shows that the electorate may be evolving on the issue. Unfortunately, the reaction in the press and the public conversation has been entirely goofy, missing out on an opportunity to have a serious discussion about our expensive habit of putting harmless people in jail. That's not what prison is for.
An unfortunate truth in all of this is that we have attempted to use our prison system to segregate out people we don't want to be around. We've used prison as a filter with a bright line separating the law followers from the law breakers. What's most unfortunate is that once you are on the other side of that line, many of the benefits of a law-abiding lifestyle (employment, education, society) are no longer available to you. So, you go back to breaking the law. Partly out of choice, but partly because that is the life that has been prescribed.
And we pay a lot of money to keep this system working.