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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The High (And Hidden) Costs Of Incarceration--Guest Post by Julie Bender

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The following is based on research done by Julie Bender, a member of the local Valley Justice Coalition:

“Jim," age 20, is serving a six-month sentence at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail, charged with grand larceny. It appears he may have been under the influence of street drugs and/or Xanax at the time of the offense, not fully comprehending the trouble he was causing its consequences.

One might ask whether options other than incarceration should have been considered. If so, the following questions might have been considered:

● What would appropriate consequences be for breaking and entering a private home and stealing a used flat screen TV? In Jim’s case, this resulted in a charge of grand larceny. States other than Virginia have raised the threshold for grand larceny to $1000, so the charges in another community most likely would have been considered simple larceny. However in Virginia, the threshold is still $200, thus the charge of grand larceny.

● What damages were done to the home, at what cost for repairs?  

● How might this young man be held responsible for his misbehavior?  

● How might he realize the effect of his actions on the victim or community and “make things right?"

● How might he best learn about the effects of his ongoing use of drugs?

These questions might have resulted in other alternatives: a suspended sentence, probation, fine, counseling, community service, house arrest, drug treatment, or restorative approaches, where Jim would have been supported in facing his victim and working out a plan to repair the harm done, both relationally and financially.

One might even ask whether other alternatives to incarceration might have been more readily accessible if he had been a Caucasian male rather than a "person of color".

At the time of this writing, Jim has already served five months of incarceration, at a cost per inmate of some $26,000 per year.  Meanwhile he owes thousands in court and attorney fees he needs to be able to pay off. In addition, his time behind bars has cost his family approximately $200 a month for supplemental nutritious food, toiletries and medical copays, along with thefamily having to pay $1 a day for "jail rent".  

Minimum wages lost in this six-month time period would add up to $7800.  

Financial costs for the time it will take for Jim to get re-established with a job, housing, and transportation will likely fall on parents for at least the first year, and possibly through his entire three years of probation.  Should he take to the streets and become homeless, the costs would then fall on the community. 

And then there are the hidden "social” costs of Jim's incarceration:

● the likelihood that he will reoffend, given that his underlying drug issues were not addressed;

● the effects on Jim's younger siblings, particularly an at-risk teenage brother;

● the stigma Jim now faces, with his crime history, in finding work, housing, enlisting in the armed services, further education, and marriage;

● the criminogenic effect of incarceration, which reinforces maladaptive behavior and survival strategies.  In Jim’s case, these could include:
    • learned helplessness;
    • learned violence, in order to defend oneself against other inmates;
    • learning (from other inmates) how to make methamphetamines;
    • disrespect for authority and for other humans;
    • the role modeling (sometimes constructive, often not) observed from the jail staff in  authority over him.  
These are troubling questions and issues posed by only one young adult experiencing incarceration and facing the future. What if we multiply them by 337 (juvenile population projected in 2017) or 18,000 (adult population in local jails in Virginia projected in 2017?  

What are those implications for our community and our state?

Click on Comments below for an engaging response.
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