Did you know there are more people in prison in America than there were imprisoned under Stalin in the Soviet Union? The cost of incarcerating those people is absolutely astonishing.
Time's Fareed Zakaria writes that the U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 people - which is more than 7-10 times as many as other developed countries. Japan has only 63 per 100,000. Germany has 90 and France has 96. Great Britain has 156.
The related costs are mind boggling.
Bipartisan forces have created the trend that we see. Conservatives and liberals love to sound tough on crime, and both sides agreed in the 1990s to a wide range of new federal infractions, many of them carrying mandatory sentences for time in state or federal prison. And as always in American politics, there is the money trail. Many state prisons are now run by private companies that have powerful lobbyists in state capitals. These firms can create jobs in places where steady work is rare; in many states, they have also helped create a conveyor belt of cash for prisons from treasuries to outlying counties.
Partly as a result, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons vs. $5.7 billion on the UC system and state colleges. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and 21 prisons. A college student costs the state $8,667 per year; a prisoner costs it $45,006 a year.