It is not always clear exactly what the cost is of the status quo. Policing is an area that is getting more attention now, and hopefully calls to defund the police are met with serious consideration as to how much money our police forces really need. The status quo in policing is that we spend a lot of money to lock up people we determine to be criminals, but not a lot of money on things that help rehabilitate criminals or prevent crime in the first place. We argue that tight state and federal budgets don’t leave us with enough money for anything other than incarceration, but when we consider just how costly policing really is, we can see that changing the status quo would open a lot of funding for other avenues.
Johann Hari addresses this reality in his book Chasing the Scream from 2015. At the time Hari wrote the following about a block in Brooklyn, NY, “In Brownsville, Brooklyn, the state spends one million dollars for every five people it arrests and convicts of midlevel drug offenses.” Our priority for our police has been to go after drug criminals and place steep penalties against them. The harsh costs, society thinks, should go to drug dealers and addicts, but the reality is that the costs fall on society itself. The current movement of defund the police is as much about how we prioritize our resources as it is about stripping the police from their ability to cause physical harm to those they encounter.
“In the United States,” Hari writes, “90 percent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 percent going to treatment and prevention.”
We complain about limited resources and being unable to introduce policy to truly make the lives of our fellow citizens better. But we spend huge amounts of money ($5 million dollars on five people) in the costs of arrests, trials, and incarceration. We are willing to pay huge amounts of money to round up the problem and remove it from our sights, but we are not willing to pay money to work with people and help address the problems that spiraled into the even worse problems that we arrest people for having. There are other ways to address crime, drug use, and the dereliction of the lives of the people we incarcerate. Shifting away from an arrest first and police first mindset can open up new resources to better address these problems and challenges.