The True Cost of Criminal Injustice

“California is to incarceration what Mississippi was to segregation – the state that most exemplifies the social and legal deformities of the practice.”

— Jonathan Simon, UC Berkeley Professor of Law

On March 30, 2017, the foundation hosted an internal learning session to continue to deepen our staff-wide knowledge of and commitment to criminal justice reform. Our panelists, James Bell, Executive Director of the Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice, Fairness, and Equity and David Muhammad, Executive Director of National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, gave us valuable context on criminal justice as well as thoughts on how The San Francisco Foundation can make a difference in this critical moment.

Criminal Injustice Fuels Racial and Economic Inequity

One of the key barriers to opportunity and equity is our nation’s broken criminal justice system. Rather than addressing the root causes behind crime and violence, our country has relied on criminalization and imprisonment of people of color. Despite ample evidence that criminalization is not an effective strategy to ensure public safety, our punitive system has left our nation with the shameful distinction of being home to one-fourth of the world inmates despite the fact that we have only five percent of the global population.

California has one of the highest differences between its rates of Black and White incarceration. The Bay Area’s high rate of Black incarceration  is even more shocking. In San Francisco, 56 percent of  inmates are Black, while only six percent of the city’s population is Black[1]. Black communities and other communities of color bear the brunt of the cost of criminal injustice.

A significant body of research has proven that any involvement with the criminal justice system results in worse life outcomes. For example, upon release from prison, people with a criminal record are frequently unable to find work, which increases  the financial burden on families and individuals and creates pressure to join or re-join the underground economy. Trauma, stigma, and discrimination resulting from association with the criminal justice system further perpetuates a cycle of poverty, disconnection, and leads to more criminal behavior. Nearly two of every three people who leave a California state prison return to prison within less than one year.

True Costs

The impacts cited above have real human costs as well as quantifiable economic costs. Nationwide, America spends approximately $80 billion per year on incarceration. But the true social cost of incarceration exceeds $1 trillion. These costs include lost economic productivity from years spent in prison, costs to society of physical and mental health issues, costs borne by loved ones through fees and fines, and much more. Ultimately, the social cost of mass incarceration is 11 times higher than the total spent on the corrections system itself–all for an ineffective approach to securing “public safety.”

Criminal Justice Is NOT a System

One of the difficulties that advocates and practitioners face is that the criminal justice “system” is not a system at all. Our presenters underscored that it is in fact a series of overlapping and disjointed institutions, policies, and jurisdictions that spans city police departments, state and federal level sentencing policies county sheriffs, elected judges, jails, prisons, juvenile court, and more.

A Moment of Opportunity

Our presenters shared with us significant statewide and local momentum for criminal justice reform. One effort they highlighted was in Alameda County, where the Justice Reinvestment Coalition has secured a commitment from the County to provide 1400 new jobs for formerly incarcerated people. Efforts like this, won by a collection of grassroots organizers, service providers, and policy advocates, give us hope that our communities can reinvest our resources in real justice for our communities. The San Francisco Foundation is excited to continue to learn from the field as well as support criminal justice reform in order to advance racial and economic equity in our region.

[1] City and County of San Francisco, “County Jail Needs Assessment: Hall of Justice Replacement Jail,” August 2013

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