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January 5, 2010

"Prisons and Budgets"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective editorial that appeared in yesterday's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has about one-quarter of its prisoners. But the relentless rise in the nation’s prison population has suddenly slowed as many states discover that it is simply too expensive to overincarcerate.

Between 1987 and 2007 the prison population nearly tripled, from 585,000 to almost 1.6 million. Much of that increase occurred in states — many with falling crime rates — that had adopted overly harsh punishment policies, such as the “three strikes and you’re out” rule and drug laws requiring that nonviolent drug offenders be locked away.

These policies have been hugely costly. According to the Pew Center on the States, state spending from general funds on corrections increased from $10.6 billion in 1987 to more than $44 billion in 2007, a 127 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the same period, adjusted spending on higher education increased only 21 percent.

In 2008, the explosion of the prison population ground to a near halt, according to data released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 739,000 inmates were admitted to federal and state facilities, only about 3,500 more than were released.

One factor seems to be tight budgets as states decide to release nonviolent offenders early. This can not only save money. If done correctly, it can also be very sound social policy. Many nonviolent offenders can be dealt with more effectively and more cheaply through treatment and jobs programs....

For many years, driving up prison populations has been an easy thing for elected officials to do, popular with voters and powerful corrections officer unions. The new incarceration figures suggest, however, that in the current hard economic times, strapped states are beginning to realize that they do not have the money to keep people in prison who do not need to be there.

January 5, 2010 at 09:26 AM | Permalink


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yes, but why not mention the federal govt's spending on prisons, arising from so much usurpation of state criminal laws? the omission appears intentional or just dumb.

Posted by: FluffyRoss | Jan 5, 2010 9:55:21 AM

The editorial does mention the federal incarceration rate, but it focuses on the states, because that’s where the “news” is. States are under far more pressure, as they hold the majority of prisoners, and unlike the federal government, can’t just print more money to pay for them. It’s mainly fiscal reality, not any sense of justice, that is leading the states to realize that they can’t keep doing this.

To be sure, the federal system is terribly bloated. Many federal crimes are duplicative of state crimes, and federal sentences are generally harsher than the states would impose for the same offense. But as a percentage of its budget, the central government spends far less on corrections, because the feds have so many expensive functions that the states don’t have—national defense, for instance. Even if the DOJ budget were reduced to zero, the federal government would still be in deficit. So Congress can continue to criminalize more behavior and ratchet up sentences, because in the federal budget justice is just a rounding error, and they can always raise the debt ceiling to pay for it.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jan 5, 2010 12:00:32 PM

I think "usurpation" is misleading in describing the feds involvement in the prosecution some traditionally local offenses. In most cases the feds have been required to step into the breach caused by the local jurisdiction's failure to operate an effective justice system in regard to certain types of crimes. In so doing, the locals jeopardize the safety of the community.

Philadelphia is a good example. A recent investigative series by the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed a long-standing, ineffective, local system that has the poorest conviction rate of any metropolitan area in the nation. The bail system is a standing joke and fugitives abound. Cases like possession of a concealed weapon were considered minor offenses and punished weakly if at all. The feds stepped "into the breach" and have provided a measure of swift and certain justice for the community in the prosecution of these cases.

Posted by: mjs | Jan 5, 2010 12:07:45 PM

It seems to me that if Philadelphia has a relatively poor local system, then the locals should pay to fix it. Ultimately, Philadelphians get the system they deserve, through the officials they elect, the laws they pass, and the taxes they impose to fund the implementation.

By stepping in to fill the perceived breach, the federal government simply enables Philadelphia to continue to operate a terrible system. If the feds got out of the “nanny” business, Philadelphians would realize that they own their crime problem, and nobody is going to come in and fix it for them. Why should taxpayers in, say, North Dakota, pay more because Philadelphia hasn’t done the job that, in our federal system, is supposed to be local?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jan 5, 2010 12:20:52 PM

Marc Shepherd --

"Why should taxpayers in, say, North Dakota, pay more because Philadelphia hasn’t done the job that, in our federal system, is supposed to be local?"

For the same reason that taxpayers in North Dakota should pay more so that Nebraskans won't have to fund their own Medicaid budget.

Oooooooooooooops!! Wrong subject. I got confused there and thought this was about the deals that got cut to get to 60 votes for Obamacare.

Anyway, moving right along.......You make some good points, but so does mjs. I worked for the feds, and it's difficult to turn your back on local conditions. (Of course "local" has an oddly slippery meaning, since any particular federal office has to be "located" somewhere).

When I was in the USAO for the Eastern District of Virginia, there was a violent drug ring operating in Fredricksburg. We could have looked upon this as Fredricksburg's problem, or a Virginia state problem, and for a long time we did. But a group of civic leaders from Fredrickburg asked for a meeting with us, and we gave it to them. They made a poignant case that they wanted, and needed, the protection of the law and weren't getting it from the state or the locals. So we went in. The results are partly described in United States v. Olvis, 97 F.3d 739 (4th Cir. 1996).

A plaque hangs on my wall today, given to me (and my colleagues) in thanks for draining the drug swamp there. So while as an abstract matter you have a strong argument, mjs has seen it up close and personal, and from that perspective you come away with a different outlook.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 5, 2010 1:30:34 PM

Marc Shepherd: Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world. There are jurisdictions that are unable/unwilling to operate an effective justice system. When people are not secure in their homes/neighborhoods, it seems cruel to tell them to wait for the next election cycle.........

Posted by: mjs | Jan 5, 2010 2:52:49 PM

I live in Iowa and the crime and prison admission rates have been decreasing for the past ten years or so. The prison population has not changed much since 2000 but it is possible there is a slight downward trend. I think it would be a good idea for the governor and legislature to ask if it is possible to reduce the prison population by 10% in the next five to ten years. Other states have shown the reductions in the 1%-2% per year range are sustainable.

To do so they will have to reduce the recidivism rate and the rate that juvenile offenders enter the criminal justice system because they are the main sources of return and new prison admissions. There has been strong bipartisan support for a "tough on crime" policy but in recent years the pressure is not as strong for such legislation. They are looking very hard for ways to cut the budget because they anticipate a $1 billion deficit next fiscal year so they idea of a steady reduction in the prison population may find a receptive audience.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 5, 2010 3:38:02 PM

"Prisons and Budgets"

I guess I should eagerly await the NYT editorial about the real problem: "Entitlement Spending and Budgets."

Somehow I think I'll be waiting a long time.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 5, 2010 7:16:25 PM

For folks like mjs the terms justice and punishment seem to be interchangeable.

Posted by: John K | Jan 8, 2010 12:27:53 PM

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