New York City is spending $92,000 per jail inmate each year, the New York Times reports. The total includes $59,000 per year in corrections department costs and other funds that include staff insurance and pension benefits and $150 million for medical care. The Times says the figure exceeds that of many other big cities.
The city says it is trying to limit the numbers who are behind bars. “Some people don’t need to be in jail; they can perform community service to pay for their crime,” said John Feinblatt, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s criminal justice coordinator. “We’ve been focusing on those people who belong in jail.”
Some criminal justice experts argue that the city wastes money and opportunities to handle the 13,500 inmates now at Rikers Island, many of whom are mentally ill, addicted to drugs or H.I.V.-positive. “It really doesn’t makes sense to spend almost $100,000 a year to keep drug users, petty criminals, people with mental illness jailed,” said Nicholas Freudenberg of the Program in Urban Public Health at Hunter College. “It’s not a good use of public money.”
Most Rikers Island inmates have been in jail at least once before. Many return several times a year, creating a revolving-door effect in which low-level crimes lead to small punishments, like probation or short jail sentences, that do little to alter criminal behavior. Freudenberg and other experts say the city should take turnstile jumpers, open-container violators and other minor lawbreakers out of jail, where they receive little help, and put them in community-based programs and shelters that help them gain skills. “For $90,000 or $100,000,” said Freudenberg, “we could put people in housing, in treatment, in college, a whole range of things that would lead to better outcomes.”
Jeremy Travis of the Urban Institute in Washington and former director of the National Institute of Justice, said, “At the most fundamental level, what we’re talking about is how to reduce crime.”
The Los Angeles County jail system, the nation’s largest, spends less than $24,000 per inmate a year; in Chicago, where hundreds of inmates must sleep on floors because of overcrowding, the average cost is $21,900. In New York, 24 percent of people arrested in the early 1990s were sentenced to jail or prison; in 2001, only 15 percent were.