Prison frenzy and drug war a huge drag on economy, new report says

Gustavo Arellano and Tom Tancredo didn't find much common ground in their debate about illegal immigration Tuesday night, but they did agree that the war on drugs has been a very costly failure. A new report seeks to quantify that costby looking at the long-term effects of adding increasing numbers of ex-cons to the labor market.

The bottom line? The United States is losing between $57 billion and $65 billion a year in lowered employment because of the rush to incarcerate, not to mention the penchant for locking up more of our population than any other country, including hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders.

"The rise in the ex-offender population overwhelmingly reflects changes in the U.S. criminal justice system, not changes in underlying activity," declared John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and co-author of the report "Ex-Offenders and the Labor Market," in a press release. "We incarcerate an astonishing share of nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug-related offenses."

According to statistics compiled by the Justice Policy Institute, the number of inmates in state prisons for drug offenses increased by 550 percent over the past two decades. While the billions spent on incarcerating drug offenders is already well-documented, Schmitt's study seeks to gauge the impact of millions of ex-offenders, no longer readily employable because of their felony records, hitting the job market.

The figures are alarming. Roughly one in 33 working-age adults has been in prison. (For males in the 30-34 age range, it's more like one in ten.) Because a felony conviction has a dramatic effect on job prospects -- even for low-paying jobs that require little education -- the study's authors estimate that the swelling population of ex-offenders lowered employment in 2008 by as much as 1.7 million workers, costing the economy as much as $65 billion in diminished output.

With more felons in the pipeline, there's no quick fix to the problem. But the report's authors urge reconsideration of sentencing laws to try to minimize the future drag of so many marginally employed ex-cons. Revisiting the drug laws, as Tancredo and Arellano both acknowledge, would be a good place to start.

More from our Immigration archive: "Knee-jerk reactions to the debate between Tom Tancredo and "Ask a Mexican" Gustavo Arellano."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast