Chettiar: Missing From the Debates: Fixing Our Criminal Justice System

Chettiar: Missing From the Debates: Fixing Our Criminal Justice System
Stephen Marks | The Images Bank | Getty Images

Despite their differences, both Presidential campaigns have something in common: they seem to hold on an overly simplistic view of the economy. On Monday, both campaigns released new ads on the economy explaining their divergent views but still offering no details on their policy proposals. Both Mitt Romney and President Obama want to reduce taxes—albeit for different populations—and both candidates want to control government spending—though in different ways.

What has been missing—and will likely be missing from tonight's debate—is a discussion of what Romney plans to do other than simply cut government spending, and exactly what Obama plans to do to grow the economy "from middle out, not from the top down." Americans asking candidates questions tonight should press Mitt Romney to jettison the mistaken idea that government spending and the 47 percent are the enemy. They should also push President Obama to offer more concrete proposals for boosting economic growth. Otherwise, both candidates will continue to offer generalized talking points and rhetoric that fail to address the depths of problems we face as a nation—including rebuilding the middle class and the struggling communities who have been hardest hit by the recession. These communities keep our economy alive, and reconstructing them will help our country achieve prosperity.

Every government policy has consequences and is an investment decision. Candidates need to explain – and voters need to ask – what the costs and benefits are of each proposal. If we cut government spending, what happens to the government programs that support our economy? If we spend to grow the middle class, how will that grow our economy? What types of cuts will this spending entail? We would be well served to recognize that every government policy affects the economy and has broad social consequences. From improving reproductive health to resourcing education to expanding voting rights, all policies have large effects on the economy and human capital – our largest economic asset.

As an example, our criminal justice system – which definitely will not be addressed tonight – has huge consequences for our labor force. The system costs taxpayers an $70 billion per year. But fiscal costs are the tip of the "cost iceberg." Using incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution to every social quandary has led to a ballooning of our prison population to 2.3 million Americans behind bars—the highest per-capita rate in the world.

You would be surprised at how many people are locked up for low-level crimes like jumping a subway turnstile, nonviolent crimes, or drug crimes. Half of those in state prisons are locked up for nonviolent crimes; half of federal prisoners committed drug crimes. This zeal to imprison people squanders human capital by removing large sectors of people from society. Many of these individuals do not pose public safety risks, but are nonetheless prevented from contributing to our job force, participating in our democracy, and advancing educationally. Often, their children—and their children's children—face similar obstacles to participating in our country. As a result, fewer people are able to contribute to our economy, intellectual leadership, and democracy.

To take the place of this broken system, we need to create one that costs less and reaps greater benefits for individuals, communities, and the economy as a whole. Some funds should be reallocated to early public education, rebuilding our infrastructure, and helping save families from foreclosure. Funds should also go toward job training programs and expanding educational opportunities for everyone – since a well-prepared and diverse workforce lifts our whole nation. These programs will help people get back on their feet and allow them to contribute to the workforce.

We should use imprisonment as a last resort when necessary to protect public safety – that is, after all, supposed to be the purpose of prison. We could start by decriminalizing petty offenses, offering drug treatment for those who need it, and making sure that our entire criminal justice system is working to meet its goals. Specifically, all public funds spent on the criminal justice system should be tied to an evaluation of costs incurred and benefits produced.

The answer to our economic problems is not just to blindly cut government spending. It is to figure out where it is wise to spend government dollars because we are getting a collective benefit, and where it is not. This approach to policymaking will allow our government to make smart decisions about and investments in the country's future—and not simply just reducing one side of its balance sheet. These types of policies are not about "dependents, " "victims, " or "takers." They are about figuring out how to achieve fairness and prosperity as a nation.

Whoever wins the election would be wise to shift gears from the overly simplistic, zero-sum view of government spending to a broader understanding of public policies as directly advancing the public good. Our future depends on it.

Inimai Chettiar is the director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. She has specialized expertise in using cost-benefit analysis to further policy reform, specifically focusing on economic policy and criminal justice reform.