Cruel & Unusual

The True Costs of Our Prison System

A decade ago, in November 2000, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral statement titled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. Unapologetically critiquing a criminal-justice system focused primarily on punishment, the bishops called the American response to crime “a moral test for our nation and a challenge for our church.”

Their statement chastised the United States for its “astounding” rate of incarceration, “six to twelve times higher than the rate of other Western countries,” and went on to suggest changes that would make the system more humane and socially beneficial. “Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more people to death has not given Americans the security we seek,” the bishops declared. “It is time for a new national dialogue on crime and corrections, justice and mercy, responsibility and treatment.”

The backdrop to the bishops’ pastoral was a dramatic rise in the incarceration rate. In the twenty years preceding their report, that rate rose steeply and steadily, more than tripling to 683 prisoners per 100,000 of the population—which meant 2 million people behind bars and a total bill to federal, state, and local governments of about $64 billion. Closer inspection of the ranks of the imprisoned raised even more concerns. Prisons were increasingly admitting nonviolent criminals,...

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About the Author

Robert DeFina is a professor in the Sociology Department at Villanova University. His teaching and research interests include labor markets, poverty, and social inequality. He is co-editor of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought.