The Economics of the American Prison System

Categories: AmericaHealthPrison

Last year, on February 14, 2018, the United States was left perplexed when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz massacred 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida. Cruz was charged with 17 counts of premediated murder (Berman). Later, it was uncovered that he, who had previously shown signs of extreme violence, suffered from depression, ADHD and autism (McCausland). According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization with a comprehensive database of information on specific mental illnesses, 70% of the youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness.

Now, the direct cost of treating and supporting the youth with mental instabilities narrowed down but not limited to depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative stress disorder, intermittent explosive disorder is approximately $55 billion a year. Jailing a juvenile is costly; however, jailing a juvenile who is mentally ill is both: costly and inefficient. As exemplified in Broward County, Florida, housing a general population of inmates’ costs taxpayer $78 per day, while the price spikes up to $125 per day for an inmate with a mental illness (Ilesanmi).

Psychological disorders are an issue that do not only affect the American adolescence, but it also affects the American financial system.

Initially, the juvenile justice system had a rehabilitative and preventative approach to youth criminality while emphasizing the needs and rights of adolescents over the appeal to penalize them. In consonance to The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, the mission of juvenile justice was to avert youth from the retributive processing of the adult justice system.

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Inevitably, this resulted in the use of community-based programs rather than large institutions. Prior to the 1980s, juveniles were rehabilitative; however, due to a short-lived surge in violent delinquency, protecting the community became the primary goal. Consequently, during the 1980s and 1990s, the juvenile justice system developed an approach that uses a criminalization perspective over medicalization (PMC). This strategy has been largely criticized as it has been noticed that most adolescents constituting juvenile detention centers are poor and/or were raised in impoverished communities. Unfortunately, this is not a surprise as poverty is an ordinary circumstance/ lifestyle for many children and families in the United States. Adolescents less than 18 years old are inequitably affected by poverty, comprising 33% of all people in poverty . Living in a low-income household has been linked to poor health and an increased risk for mental health problems in both children and adults that can subsist across their life span (American Academy of Pediatrics). A recent study reported by the U.S. News and World Report, an American media company that publishes news, opinion, consumer advice, rankings, and analysis, examined the specific mental health reasons for children’s hospital stays, and showed that “depression, bipolar disorder and psychosis are among the most common conditions associated with mental health hospitalizations.” Pursuant to the report, the price for the treatment of depressed children – about $1.33 billion annually – is approximately just as much as the price that hospitals charge for the care of a children with asthma – about $1.5 billion. Despite their high need for mental health services, juveniles living in poverty are least likely to relate to the required mental health care. Considering the fact that that the United States incarcerates more juveniles than any other industrialized nation in the world (Green); it would be safe to assume that almost none of them can afford the needed treatment; therefore, even if they were punished by the law, the social welfare is not protected and American finances are utilized for an issue that’s being delayed instead of solved.

In accordance to NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the incarceration of juveniles with psychological instabilities beset law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. “It does not protect public safety.” This organization, which self-identifies as an advocacy group representing the people affected by mental illnesses, believes that individuals in need of mental assistance are ignored. In one of their articles titled “Jailing People with Mental Illness,” it was revealed that amid a mental health crisis, individuals have higher chances of encountering the police than getting medical help. As an effect, 2 million people with mental illness are imprisoned each year. Approximately 15% of men and 30% of women detained in jails have a major mental disorder. It is stated that many inmates do not receive the needed treatment once in jail; thus, their mental health deteriorates. On the contrary, a mentally ill individual received the needed treatment amid their sentence, soon after leaving jail, he/she would be in the former illness as they are likely to not have access to needed healthcare. “At least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.” A criminal record often makes it hard for individuals to get a job or housing. Many individuals, especially without access to mental health services, wind up homeless, and often re-arrested. (NAMI). This, of course, cycles to the aforementioned claim presented by U.S. News and World Report; the funds exhausted for prisons is futile as most of the prisoners suffering from psychological disorders depart from jail and just to be imprisoned again.

Alan Simpson, a former member of the U.S. Senate, wrote his testimony as a former juvenile offender that was posted by the Washington Times in 2017; a daily newspaper that often publishes information that utilizes terms that favor conservative causes. In his testimony, Simpson supports the ideology that the children diagnosed with mental illness should be treated before their illness leads to incarceration. He states that as a juvenile, he set an abandoned barrack on fire, and destroyed neighboring properties but that he was still given a second chance and he then managed to become a U.S. senate. Because of his personal experience, Simpson believes that children shouldn’t be punished as adults as their brains haven’t fully developed. He states that adolescents make decisions based upon risk, while relying on the primitive parts of the brain that emphasize emotion over consequences and understanding. For such reasons, he articulates, the government does not allow children to enter into contracts or vote or enlist in the military. In accordance to Simpson, this same logic should be used when applying judicial punishments. He states that juvenile offenders should be given a “second chance, as they may die in prison for acts made before having developed the cognitive and emotional skills needed to make informed and smart decisions and choices.” His approach claims to ensure an age-appropriate accountability measurement for children, while still protecting public safety. Simpson’s ideology does not favor public safety but also the American financial system. As a recent study collaborated between North Carolina State University, RTI International, a nonprofit organization that provides research and technical services, and the University of South Florida showed that outpatient treatment of mental illness significantly reduces arrest rates for people with mental health problems – and also saves taxpayers money.

From an economical and long-term benefit standpoint, community-based alternatives have been found to be more successful and economical with rehabilitating juvenile offenders.

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The Economics of the American Prison System. (2019, Nov 28). Retrieved from

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