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September 27, 2011

Reflections on federal prison costs through the lens of "muffin-gate"

As detailed in this story from The Hill, which is headlined "Grassley keeps pressing on government conference costs," a recent audit indicating that the Justice Department may have (like everyone else) paid too much for hotel food continues to be a source of inside-the-beltway buzz.  Here are the basics:

Muffin-gate isn’t going anywhere.  Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is pressing the Obama administration for more answers on federal conference expenses, following last week’s audit that found the Justice Department paid $16 a muffin, as well as other exorbitant prices, at recent agency gatherings.

In a message sent Monday [available here], Grassley specifically asks Jacob Lew, President Obama’s budget director, why Justice’s conference spending rose by more than 50 percent from 2008 to 2009, the first year of the Obama administration.

“As I have been saying, this kind of spending is unacceptable given the economic realities most Americans are facing right now,” wrote Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Grassley has been one of the leading critics of the government’s conference spending in recent days, saying on Thursday that heads needed to roll within the executive branch....

But the Justice Department –- as well as Hilton Hotels, which served the muffins in question –- have also pushed back against the report.  In a statement, Hilton said that, as if often the case, the receipt for the event discussed in the audit didn’t tell the whole story.  In fact, the hotel chain said, it served muffins, fruit, coffee and juice, as well as tax and gratuity, for $16 a person.  A Justice spokeswoman seconded Hilton’s take on the event, saying in a statement last week that “the abbreviated banquet checks did not reflect all of the food and services provided.”

While I am pleased to see that at least one Senator has enough time to double-check that DOJ is not wasting money on muffins, I continue to be disappointed (but not surprised) that nobody on Capitol Hill seems too concerned with the recent DOJ account (in its recent letter to the USSC) of how expensive and overcrowded federal prisons are right now.  Every single one of the 217,000+ prisoners in the federal system — more than half of whom are there serving time for federal drug offenses —  are each costing the American taxpayer $70 per day every day.  Some (much? most?) of that considerable federal prison expense — which totals more than $15 million every single day — is not obviously much more beneficial to the public than a few $16 muffins.

Of course, exploring whether taxpayers' money was wasted on some muffins scores political points; exploring whether taxpayers' money is wasted on keeping federal offenders in prison long than needed to serve public safety requires dealing with a lot of chalenging issues of public policy.  I guess we should not be surprised what ends up garnering congressional attention these days.

September 27, 2011 at 05:55 PM | Permalink

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For $70, prevent a violent crime a day, saving cost in pain suffering, real estate value losses, health care of injuries, social welfare costs of helping the family victims of the prisoner. One of the greatest bargains and investments on earth. Because 95% of the adjudicated charges are fictitious, the true value of the investment is now immeasurable. Prisoners with nothing to do should be water boarded to discover all their other crimes, so that they may be resolved. Instead they waste their time, and organized gang violence, making life inside unlivable, even for staff that leaves after 8 hours. The lawyer coddles the ultra-violent organized gang member to avoid any intimidation or deterrence of the ultra-violent gang member. In return the ultra-violent organized gang member generates massive lawyer employment and legal costs.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 28, 2011 4:00:55 AM

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