America’s ever-growing prison-industrial complex has given rise to one of the largest incarcerated populations in the world.  According to a new study by the Pew Center, the average prisoner spends nearly three additional years behind bars than they did in 1990.  An additional $10 billion tax dollars has accounted for the 36% increase in time spent behind bars.  Our prison system is like a low-maintenance residential program where the tenants’ rate is paid by the State and they aren’t allowed to leave the building.  Adam Gelb from the Pew Center joined us yesterday to discuss the alarming trend in our prison population growth.

As private companies become responsible for the management and development of our prison system, the cost per prisoner has increased by nearly $24,000.  This begs the question: why are we spending more to keep people longer behind bars?

“There has been an underlying assumption for some time now that the best way to combat crime was to put as many people as possible in prison for as long as possible,” Gleb articulated.  “The trouble is that, over time, research has shown that for a lot of low-risk offenders that isn’t the case.”

A lot of lower-level, non-violent offenders have been swept up into this net of incarceration.  We have gotten to a point where one in one hundred of American adults are in prison, one in thirty-one are on some form of supervision, and one in eight States’ employees works in correction.  Our spending on prisons has only been outpaced by spending on Medicaid.

“Prisons are a government spending program that needs to be put to the cost-benefit analysis like any other form of government spending program,” Gelb suggested.  “Taxpayers now, in this situation more than ever, want their tax dollars to be put to the best possible use.”

Privatization of the prison system has contributed to the traveling to the prison-building path.  As a business model the prison system essentially mirrors the hotel industry, with linens, foods, workers, and the important thing is to keep the prisons populated to maintain the work that needs to be done to keep the prison up.  Is there a new way to ensure our population doesn’t have to rely on prisons only?

“We have new technologies, systems, and strategies we didn’t have before that will help people stay out of prison.  A lot of extra comfort to judges and prosecutors is brought when they are presented with these low-cost options that run against prison,” Gelb explained.  “Sometimes it sounds like snake oil a little bit, but we are seeing in State after State reduced prison stays due to implementation of these new techniques.”

People are sick and tired of the revolving door, in more ways than one, and it is time we start to hold our system of incarceration to a level of accountability that we would expect out of any government system.  We are funding the collection and training of prison culture and wondering why it is becoming street culture.  The time for resolving this unsustainable path is now.

For the full interview watch here:

Adam Gelb is the director of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project. For more on the Pew Center visit their website or follow them on Twitter.