Reforming American Criminal Justice:

Costly Prison & Re-Entry Mindsets Re-Examined . . . and 72 Resources That Can Set Us Free!

Ronald L. Krannich, Ph.D.

Why does America house 25% of the world’s prisoners, spend over $100 billion a year on prisons, and still deliver the world’s worst outcomes – 70% recidivism rate and costly collateral damage on individuals, families, and communities, including police and correctional personnel? Maybe it has something to do with a closed “punishment mindset” that prefers costly and punitive lockup to cost-effective treatment and compassionate re-entry programs.

Let’s speak truth about “the facts” that both define and disparage the American criminal justice system. In the end, “facing the facts” may help jump-start our thinking about reforming America’s criminal justice system through renewed education and training . . . and point to 72 innovative resources that can set us free.

A Troubled Criminal Justice System Meets COVID-19  

The United States operates the world’s largest, costliest, most dysfunctional, and corrosive criminal justice system. Representing nearly 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. America also is home to 33% of the world’s female prisoners. Between 70 and 100 million citizens have some type of arrest record (from misdemeanors to felony convictions) that can become serious barriers to employment, housing, and financial success. Between 11 and 12 million people circulate in and out of U.S. correctional facilities each year. Not surprising, the U.S. has developed a sordid reputation as an “Arrested Society” and “Incarcerated Nation”. Its over-reaching criminal justice system has its roots in a long history of race-based “mass incarceration” (68% of prison/jail populations are Black or Hispanic).

With the unexpected widespread outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, many crowded correctional facilities quickly became Coronavirus death traps. Serving time in such facilities became scary existential experiences for both inmates and correctional personnel. 

Don’t kid yourself — criminal justice and incarceration in the U.S. are big businesses, especially for lawyers, the courts, private prison operators, the bail bond industry, health care providers, privatized probation services, telephone companies, endless prison suppliers, prison industries, and deputized “weekend cops” who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Worst of all, it’s very difficult to change a system whose major beneficiaries are politically entrenched through lobbying and campaign contribution activities.

24 Costly and Sobering Facts 

When discussing the American criminal justice system, keep in mind the following facts that profile this system:

  1. 639 out of 100,000 U.S. adults are locked up – highest percentage in the world (nearly double the number in Russia — 511 per 100,000 — and five times as many as in China — 121 per 100,000).
  2. 2.3 million people are caged in U.S. federal and state prisons.
  3. 11-12 million people circulate in and out of jails, detention centers, and prisons each year.
  4. 30,000+ immigrants are held in ICE detention centers (79% of these centers are privately-owned facilities).
  5. 38% of all prison and jail populations are Black (represent 13% of total population); 30% are Hispanic (represent 16% of total population); Asians, Native Americans, and Whites are least likely to be incarcerated.
  6. 85% of prisoners have some type of drug-related issue that initially led to their incarceration; many continue with the same issue upon release from jails, prisons, and detention centers.
  7. America’s correctional complex (7,400 institutions) includes:
    • 1,719 state prisons (1.3+ million inmates)
    • 102 federal prisons (200,000+ inmates)
    • 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities (55,000 juveniles)
    • 3,283 local jails (800,000+ inmates)
    • 9 Indian Country jails
    • several military brigs and confinement facilities
  8. Federal and state prisons, which normally house 500 to 5,000 inmates, are home to a disproportionate number of immigrants, violent criminals, the mentally ill, and some really bad people
  9. Annual release rates vary by correctional complex, but 95% of prisoners are eventually released:
    • 700,000 ex-offenders released from state and federal prisons
    • 9 million released from fast revolving jails/detention centers
    • 5 million+ are on parole or probation
    • 33% of annual prison admissions are parole violators 
  10. Largest and most notorious prisons include:
    • ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility or SuperMax) in Florence, CO – “The Alcatraz of the Rockies” (440 prisoners)
    • Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola” or “The Alcatraz of the South”) – largest prison in the U.S. – 6,800 inmates and 1,800 correctional personnel; 74% are “lifers
    • San Quentin State Prison – 3,302 inmates with 704 on death row
    • Attica Correctional Facility – 2,150 inmates
    • Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary – 2,000 inmates
    • Folsom State Prison – 1,913 inmates
    • U.S. Penitentiary Marion – 1,000 inmates
  11. Largest jails (literally cities within cities)
    • Los Angeles Jail – 19,836 (serves over 50,000 meals a day!)
    • Rikers Island (NY) Jail – 10,949 inmates/10,500 staff
    • Cook County (Chicago) Jail – 9,514
    • Harris County (Houston) Jail – 8,511
    • Philadelphia Jail – 8,318  
  12. $250 billion spent annually to operate America’s criminal justice system.
  13. $80 billion spent annually on incarceration.
  14. Collateral damage/costs to individuals, families, and communities are simply incalculable – think trillions of dollars!
  15. New York City spends an astounding $558,000 per year to jail someone – elsewhere it’s usually under $100,000 per detainee. The most costly U.S. incarceration is found at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base Detention Center in Cuba — it spends $13 million per year per prisoner!
  16. The U.S. spends over $100 billion caging prisoners, 70% of whom are drug offenders.
  17. Ex-offenders entering the Free World have several strikes against them:
    • 75% have substance abuse problems
    • 70% are high school dropouts
    • 50% are functionally illiterate
    • 21% have a work-related disability
    • 18% have Hepatitis C
    • 15% have a mental illness (however, some experts estimate 70% of incarcerated women and 55-60% of incarcerated men have a mental illness
    • 12% report a vision or hearing problem
    • 7% have a tuberculosis infection
    • 4% show signs of PTSD
    • 3% are HIV-positive or have AIDS
    • 3% participate in work-release programs
  18. Nearly 70% of released prisoners become repeat offenders (many due to minor parole violations).
  19. Over 70% of U.S. prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses – expect more violent offenders due to changes in court system/sentencing practices (drug courts, mental health courts, etc.).
  20. 34% of the nearly 500,000 correctional officers have PTSD (mainly untreated) –125% higher than combat veterans; they also have the highest suicide rate of any profession – twice as high as police.
  21. Private prisons (155) – manage 8% of all inmates (133,000). Mainly operating at the state level, the three major players are CoreCivic (66), GEO Group (65), and Management and Training Group (24). The verdict is still out on these controversial “privatized prisons.”  
  22. Veterans – constitute about 8% of prison population – 180,000 inmates. Nearly 1 million circulate in and out of jails and prisons each year. Several states now have special treatment and re-entry programs designed for assisting veteran populations.
  23. 2.7 million children in the U.S. have at least one incarcerated parent.
  24. After 2019, jails, prisons, and detention centers became Coronavirus death traps — nearly 50% of all prisoners have been inflected with COVID-19; many have died from COVID complications (death rate was 20% higher than for the average American). Others have contacted debilitating long COVID which may result in a lifetime of poor health.

Reforms and Recommended Resources For Making a Difference 

But there’s good news to report that gives renewed hope for a brighter criminal justice future. Incremental moves toward criminal justice reform establishment of specialized courts (drug, mental health, veterans, juvenile), treatment and recovery programs, decriminalization and sentencing reform, bail bond reform, educational and vocational training, early release, community policing, and re-entry assistance — are making differences in the lives of millions of people caught up in what is often a toxic criminal justice system.

As a center for criminal justice, correctional, and ex-offender re-entry resources, Impact Publications specializes in producing and distributing useful resources, from books and pocket guides to instruments, games, and videos. These resources are the focus of our latest Re-Entry Success Catalog. Please browse through that catalog and the expanded Jobs, Careers & Life Skills Success Catalog as well as the following sampling of 72 resources (CLICK on each title to review/preview) designed for making a difference in the lives of ex-offenders:










REVISED: December 3, 2022 (originally published on December 2, 2020 as Reforming American Criminal Justice: Prisons, Inmates, and Re-Entry Success). © 2022.