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The U.S. Spends Billions to Lock People Up, But Very Little to Help Them Once They’re Released

PBS News Hour: Casey Kuhn - April 7, 2021

The U.S. spends $81 billion a year on mass incarceration, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and that figure might be an underestimate. In 2017, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated the actual cost on state and federal governments and impacted families is roughly $182 billion. Those dollars go to staffing the criminal justice system and meeting the basic needs of the more than 2 million Americans who are incarcerated.

But when those people leave prison or jail and reintegrate into their communities, the question of where support comes from gets complicated. Government funding for parole and other reentry services is minimal in comparison to the amount spent to incarcerate people, and organizations struggle to apply and reapply for the funds. Reentry organizations, most of which are nonprofits, run on small budgets. When they aren’t competing for grants, they’re trying to fundraise against causes that many donors see as more compelling, they say.

“600,000 people are released from correctional facilities every year, but it’s a part of the criminal justice system that’s being funded at no guarantee,” said Jennifer Ortiz, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University Southeast who studies reentry programs across the country.

That disconnect is setting the formerly incarcerated up to fail, she said.

“We can’t tell someone released from prison, here’s a checklist of 20 things to do” — such as mandatory drug tests in the middle of the day or participating in other supervision programs, and provide them no support to do them, she said. “We have to create a better system in which those people can achieve those goals."

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