“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!”
That’s the attitude many people take toward criminals — before they consider the cost of incarceration to taxpayers, according to a recent study.
Georgia has the ninth-highest rate of incarceration in the nation, with about 52,000 people in 33 prisons.
Eyal Aharoni, an assistant professor at Georgia State University, led a research team that asked undergraduate students to make sentencing recommendations based on a hypothetical crime. He didn’t tell study participants it costs roughly $32,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up, and students reacted with their guts. Victims recommended harsh sentences.
“I'm interested in (the question of) ‘How do we reconcile conflicting emotional moral and practical values,’ which we all have in our own head,” Aharoni said.
The study, “Justice at any cost? The impact of cost–benefit salience on criminal punishment judgments,” was published in the academic journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law.
Aharoni said when participants learned the cost of incarceration, most people wanted to change their answers and recommend shorter prison sentences.
That people are willing to reduce their punishment judgment under consideration of cost to taxpayers suggests they do care about alternatives to incarceration, such as social value social programs, Aharoni said.
Lawmakers are getting the message, too. Just last year, the city of Atlanta ended cash bail and Congress passed the FIRST STEP Act.
During his two terms as Georgia's governor, Nathan Deal made criminal justice reform a priority and dropped prison spending. Deal's reforms dropped prison admissions of African-Americans to historic lows, overhauled the state’s juvenile justice system and greatly expanded court programs that treat nonviolent offenders who suffer from substance abuse and mental illness, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
A few people in the GSU study said they’d pay high costs to ensure convicts stayed behind bars, though.
But those costs add up.
“It can get very expensive when we're talking about mental health costs and incarcerated and high-risk populations,” Aharoni said.
Some inmates cost the system up to $300,000 a year, Aharoni said.
“These are not hypothetical situations we're talking about,” he said. “They're real."
Sean J. Young, with the ACLU of Georgia, said nearly one-fifth of the prison population in Georgia is aging. According to a January 2019 DOC profile of inmates, 12,673 or 25 percent of those in prison have a chronic illness. Nearly 20 percent or 10,785 inmates are receiving some sort of mental health treatment, the report states.
"We're using prisons to warehouse people with disabilities," Young said. "Instead of getting them the treatment that they need, we're just wasting taxpayer dollars on incarcerating them."
Future studies led by Aharoni on "justice at any cost" will examine perspectives of adult citizens across the nation.