February 4, 2007
The high costs of high incarceration in Mississippi
Today's Jackson Clarion Ledger has two pieces lamenting the high costs of Mississippi's high incarceration rate. One piece, authored by Marc Mauer and Ron Welch, has these highlights:
Mississippi is spending $292 million a year to operate [a] vastly expanded penal system. While prisons clearly represent one aspect of the state's approach to public safety, there is much reason to believe that the state could adopt policies to slow the growth of the prison system while also enhancing crime control....
The growing cost of incarceration not only represents a burden to state taxpayers, but diverts resources from other vital state services. Over the past decade alone, corrections costs have increased by well over $100 million a year. These are funds that are consequently not available for education, health care, or drug treatment. Not only would such investments strengthen our families and communities, but they would also yield dividends in public safety....
For far too long, we have relied on crime policies that sounded "tough," but didn't deliver. It's now time to get smart on crime by investing in programs and policies that improve outcomes for both victims and offenders. By doing so, we will be using prison space — and tax dollars — in a much wiser manner.
An editorial, titled "Prisons: Stop punishing state's taxpayers," follows-up by stressing economic realities:
With 21,724 people currently in prison in the state ... Mississippi is spending $292 million a year to warehouse [an] ever-expanding group of prisoners.... Only 3,022 of Mississippi's prison inmates are violent offenders. Providing "three hots and a cot" for 22,000 state prisoners is draining needed state tax dollars from public education and public health care. Warehousing non-violent offenders isn't working.
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In most State prisons more than half (60% is the average) of the inmates are serving a sentence for a crimes against persons (assault, kidnapping, murder, robbery and sexual assault/abuse). The usual assumption is that persons in prison for nonperson crimes (burglary, forgery, theft, drugs and repeat drunk driving) are nonviolent. That is not true in all cases for example some of the persons serving sentences for drug trafficking are very violent. Behavior codes for prison inmates and parolees/probationers are confidential so that only persons who have access to them can make a realistic determination of what fraction of the correction population is nonviolent.
Posted by: John Neff | Feb 4, 2007 9:57:08 AM
In evaluating cost to the taxpayer, does anyone in the "lets reduce our incarceration rates" camp account for the societal cost of releasing offenders whose crimes actually cost taxpayers money. Drug dealers cost taxpayer money by helping people get addicted and then they often become burglars, forgers, etc. It is too simple to say that prison costs too much. Maybe true in the abstract, but the cost of crimes not committed is almost never discussed.
I do not know about Miss., but in California people only manage to find themselves in prison for a nonviolent offense after having repeatedly demonstrated that community confinement (with drug treatment) and probation have failed. What are we suggesting, more community confinement and probation? Why does anyone think that will work when failure on probation is why they are in prison in the first place?
Posted by: David | Feb 4, 2007 11:45:01 AM
That is the dilemma that most State governments are faced with. We have large numbers of "so called nonviolent" repeat offenders cycling rapidly through the criminal justice system. The progression is probation to jail to prison to parole to prison to parole to prison etc. We have individuals in Iowa who have returned to prison 9 times. If you incapacitate them for a longer time you reduce the number of possible cycles but the consequences are that the prison population increases even faster and the legislature has to use money they don't have to build more prisons they really should not need to hold the increased population.
We need better drug and alcohol treatment that follows the person back to the community and much more rigorous supervision. The PO caseloads in most community based corrections systems are far to large for adequate supervision. In Iowa we have something called "Self-Supervison-Probation" which is very cost effective unless you are concerned about public safety. We also need to remove some of the many barriers to reentry. For example in Iowa a person convicted of a drug offense can lose their drivers license. Well try to find an affordable place to live and job in Iowa without being able to drive. If they are caught driving that is a new crime and they can be returned to prison on a parole violation.
If you look at the Iowa budget the one area that has shown consistent increases in funding for the past decade is corrections. Retribution is very popular in Iowa and a potential area of economic growth is prison construction. Being hard on crime is fiscally irresponsible in my opinion.
Posted by: John Neff | Feb 4, 2007 2:32:07 PM
It is more complicated still: Striking Out: The Failure of California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" Law. In short, Three Strikes may increase violent crime precisely among those who should be most deterred - third strikers.
Posted by: George | Feb 4, 2007 4:37:34 PM
I agree we need better drug treatment, but the case that it will be cheaper is not a given, especially in the short term. I wholeheartedly agree that the collateral consequences to convictions and prison need to be reduced, not expanded.
George, given what I know about San Francisco and Alameda County and how they enforce the law, I am not willing to accept that their crimes rates are as stated. They simply do not actively solve or pursue crime the same way as counties such as mine. That has to have an impact on whether crimes, violent or not, get reported in the first place. Plus, I have personally prosecuted three strikers in my county, who have picked up their first two or more strikes in Alameda and San Francisco. These defendant's are deterred because they do not internalize what will happen to them somewhere else until its too late.
Posted by: David | Feb 4, 2007 6:34:29 PM
That is not true in all cases for example some of the persons serving sentences for drug trafficking are very violent.
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