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October 30, 2009

Is anyone complaining about excessive federal spending on prisons?

One need only turn on talk radio to hear lots of pundits complaining about excessive federal spending on items ranging from the arts to clunkers to health care.  But this local article, headlined "Carney gets $1B more for federal prisons," leaves me wondering if there is anyone complaining about excessive federal spending on prisons.  Here are excerpts from this local piece:

[F]unding-related problems are being seen at federal correctional institutions throughout Central Pennsylvania and across the country.

The issue hits hard in Central and Northeastern Pennsylvania, home to 20 percent of the nation’s federal correctional institutions, said U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, who has successfully petitioned the House Appropriations Committee for more than $1 billion in extra federal corrections funds in the previous and current fiscal years.

Over the past 20 years, the federal prison population has increased at twice the rate of staff levels, Carney said in a letter to key legislators seeking an increase in funding.  At the end of 2008, federal prisons were operating at 138 percent their official capacities, Carney said.

Recent numbers show the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg has 1,112 inmates at its main facility, and 520 at its camp.  The official inmate capacity for the main penitentiary is 770 and 552 at the camp.  Only 88 percent of Lewisburg’s correctional positions are filled — 260 out of a possible 295. “There may be 88 percent staffing at the facility, but the inmate population is 20 percent over capacity,” said Bill Gillette, northeast regional vice president for the council of prison locals for the American Federation of Government Employees. “They are down a lot.”

Of course, I want to see all federal prisons adequately staffed and funded.  But it is the huge increase in federal prison populations that are creating these modern funding problems, and I think efforts to cut prison populations should come before any automatic decision to increase federal spending on prisons.

On this front, it would be useful if the U.S. Sentencing Commission would focus on the costs in tax dollars of the modern federal criminal justice system.  Many state sentencing commissions do cost estimates with any proposed sentencing change, and the USSC should be well-positioned to examine whether we are getting value for our tax dollar from our federal sentencing system.

October 30, 2009 at 08:56 AM | Permalink

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Comments

You aren't going to see a lot of complaint because prisons are one of the few legitimate areas of government power. You get complaints about arts and other such because they aren't seen as legitimate areas for government expenditure to begin with.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 30, 2009 11:37:55 AM

There is a sort of reverse hierarchy regarding how important crimjust spending is for the various levels of government. For local/county government, cops and jails can make up most of the budget. For state government, criminal justice spending is dwarfed by healthcare and highways but usually still comes in at number three overall. For the feds, though, prisons and enforcement are a relatively small fraction of the budget (especially excluding immigration detention, which is the fastest growing arena of federal detention). For those reasons, budget arguments against crimjust overkill work much better at the local and state levels.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 30, 2009 11:39:58 AM

What about the costs to society when criminals are released?

Posted by: federalist | Oct 30, 2009 2:31:16 PM

Our federal prisons warehouse a large number of first time non-violent offenders who are serving brutally long sentences. These prisoners receive little or no programming to prepare them for release. Their struggling spouses and children are left behind to cope with their broken lives. Who is measuring these kinds of costs to society?

Posted by: ek | Oct 31, 2009 7:57:28 AM

How long before something like DUI is a federal offense because the automobile gives the Feds jurisdiction under the commerce clause?

Original Understanding of the Commerce Clause by Jon Roland.

Posted by: George | Oct 31, 2009 12:10:44 PM

Federalist said "What about the costs to society when criminals are released?" and that is certainly a valid question. I would like to ask, what about the cost to society of those referenced by "ek" in the response following Federalist; "ek" said,"Our federal prisons warehouse a large number of first time non-violent offenders who are serving brutally long sentences. These prisoners receive little or no programming to prepare them for release. Their struggling spouses and children are left behind to cope with their broken lives. Who is measuring these kinds of costs to society?"

What about the cost of the first time non-violent offender, specifically those with Federal Felony convictions, who is released and under current law, forever suffers the stigma of the felony, is forever bared from meaningful employment and is much more likely to be to become a recidivist thus returning to prison and incurring additional cost to the taxpayer. Would it not make more sense to pass legislation, such as H.R. 1529 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2009” that would enable some of these offenders to seek expunction of their records thus allowing them a real opportunity to seek and hold meaningful employment and support themselves and their families? Cost to taxpayer, zero at most and a reduced expenditure if successful.


Posted by: HadEnough | Oct 31, 2009 9:53:20 PM

I'm a student at ucsd. Let's not forget that the officials asking for increased funding have lobbyists' interests in mind, prisons are ran by private companies. Just something that should be taken into consideration.

Posted by: Robert | Feb 3, 2010 6:24:34 PM

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