Most of us know that the U.S. has the largest prison population on the planet. It’s more than the number of people living in Siberian gulags in the old Soviet Union under Stalin. Over half are non-violent drug offenders, and a disproportionate number of them are African-American.

According to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in August of 2014, one-third of Americans now have some kind of criminal record. These records don’t usually show whether or not the charges were dropped, or if the arrest was made in error. Meanwhile, that record – even for misdemeanors or crimes for which the accused was later exonerated – hangs around a person’s neck like a millstone, sabotaging their chances for securing employment, a home, an education, and more. It’s a cycle that can and does feed on itself.

It’s bad for people and it’s a major expense for society – but apparently, it’s good for the overall economy and job creation. Some of the hot career opportunities today lie in the corrections field. Surprisingly, however, this job growth hasn’t necessarily been in the private prison industry. Instead, it’s been happening right in folks’ home towns at city and county jails.

As you may know, there is a distinct difference between “prison” and “jail.” Prisons, usually operated at a state level, are used to incarcerate felons serving court-ordered, long-term sentences. Jails, on the other hand, are either municipal or county entities, and are used either to hold suspects awaiting trial or small-time offenders serving shorter sentences (typically, a year or less). While there are many small-town and rural county jails like the one depicted in the old Andy Griffith Show, city jails in large, metropolitan areas often have over 10,000 beds. These days, such facilities are filled to capacity more often than not.

According to federal statistics, the population of local jail inmates in the U.S. has gone from under a quarter million to nearly three-quarters of a million over the past thirty years. Someone has to keep an eye on them. In general, it takes one corrections officer to supervise three inmates. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to understand that as the jail population keeps going up, so do the number of job openings for corrections officers. Those salary and benefit packages account for about three-quarters of a jail’s operating expenses – which also means a greater tax burden on local residents.

An inordinate number of those who wind up in city and county jails are non-violent offenders as well as homeless and people suffering from mental illness. It’s easy to see why the private prison industry would be pleased at this sorry state of affairs – but what are the benefits to city or county governments? Surely, there are better ways to spend tax dollars and allocate resources.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.