How high incarceration rates cost states and shatter communities

BY Murrey Jacobson  April 29, 2014 at 6:38 PM EST

America’s historically high rate of incarceration is increasingly questioned by some state leaders, justice officials and experts. And it’s back in focus this week thanks to two major reports looking at these questions. Tomorrow, the National Academy of Sciences will release a report on the causes and consequences of incarceration’s four-fold rise in the U.S. over the past 40 years. It’s also the subject of tonight’s Frontline, “Prison State,” the second of a two-part series about those who are locked up behind bars, now totaling more than 2.3 million people in the U.S.

The documentary profiles the path of four people caught up in the cycle of Kentucky’s criminal justice system. The four come from Beecher Terrace, a housing project in the west end of Louisville where one out of every six people cycle in and out of prison every year.

“If you look at incarceration spending as an investment in a neighborhood and as an investment that’s being done to keep neighborhoods safe, you see the money that’s being spent on Beecher Terrace is three times higher on incarceration than it is on education,” says Dan Edge, the filmmaker who produced “Prison State” and last week’s episode on solitary confinement. “We asked, Is this a sensible way of spending money? So many people there go to jail yet the crime rates remain high.”

Frontline went to Kentucky, in part, because it has one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the country— rising 45% in the decade ending in 2009, Edge says. “And the reason we focused even more tightly on this community is that we managed to get from Kentucky these great data sets. We could map incarceration rates and where people live before they are sent to prison, we could map real hot spots and see which neighborhoods were costing the state the most.”

Kentucky is also one of a number of states now considering reforms, particularly to its juvenile justice system.

One of the more intimate profiles in tonight’s film looks at the case of Demetria, a 14-year-old who grew up in Beecher and has been in juvenile jail multiple times, including on a charge of assaulting her aunt. Her mother was shot dead when she was nine years old.

“She had no father to live with because he was in prison on drug charges,’ says Edge. “Her family was already riven by crime and overincarceration. Essentially she has no place to go and ends up in juvenile jail at 13. Her case is emblematic to me of the issue where incarceration becomes the answer to so much. Mental health issues land her in jail. There’s a discipline problem, it’s dealt with in jail.”

Both films in the series give the audience remarkable access to the prisons, the inmates, the corrections officers and officials dealing with these issues — something that Edge said took the better part of two years to complete. In the case of Beecher Terrace, Edge says he spent a long time earning the trust of residents and the community.

“Those people feel marginalized, burnt by the media in the past, they have felt demonized and rightly so,” he says. ” It took us a long time and being there for months without cameras.”

Last week’s look at solitary confinement in Maine State Prison had access never seen before—featuring imagery that was often dramatic, shocking and even horrifying. Edge says the warden and former corrections officials were hoping to spark more conversation about the use of solitary confinement.

As other states consider changing some of their incarceration policies and practices in the wake of a recession, Edge says, “We’re at the end of an era potentially. It’s the first time in four decades where the number of prisoners are not going up. The question is whether films like ours are marking the end of an era or just a blip. The primary motivator for the change in this has been money. States started realizing they were spending a big proportion of money on incarceration. The question is whether that momentum will continue.”