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May 5, 2008

Will the 2008 Prez candidates ever seriously discuss modern incarceration realities?

I have largely given up my hope that the 2008 presidential campaign will even give sustained attention to crime and punishment issues.  Nevertheless, this morning's front-page Washington Post article highlights how prison spending is not just a crime and punishment issue:

Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States.  During the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent.  In the Northeastern states, according to the Pew report, prison spending over the past 20 years has risen 61 percent, while higher education spending has declined by 5.5 percent....

Michigan has become one of the few states that actually spend more on prisons than on higher education -- about $2 billion for prisons, and $1.9 billion in state aid to its 15 public universities and 28 community colleges.  "It's insane," said Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending in Lansing. "The governor is always talking about how we need to be high tech.  But these days, the best career opportunity is to get a job as a prison guard."...

"You've got two decades of failed policies," said Laura Sager a consultant in Michigan for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said mandatory sentencing laws and tough penalties for drug offenses in the 1980s "bloated prisons and prison populations, and the taxpayer is paying a very high price."  Now with states struggling with budget deficits, she said, "you have pressures that make it palatable to take a second look."

It is sad and telling that expensive mass incarceration realities, which have been building for years, are only now starting to get sustained major media attention.  It is even sadder that the media and the pundits have consistently failed to ask the 2008 presidential candidates any serious (or even not-so-serious) questions about mass incarceration and whether anyone has a plan to cut taxes by effectively and strategically cutting prison populations.

Some related general posts on Campaign 2008:

Some related posts on specific candidates' positions and speeches:

May 5, 2008 at 10:16 AM | Permalink


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No. They won't. Get back to work.

Posted by: S.cotus | May 5, 2008 10:25:58 AM

I wish critics of incarceration would quit arguing that draconian drug laws are responsible for our "bloated" jails. Violent and property offenders compose near 80% of the population in state prisons, which house something like 88% of our nation's criminals. True, the 20% drug offenders is up from 6% in 1980, but to pretend that some sort of rollback on the drug laws would solve what reformers believe to be an incarceration problem is disingenous.

Posted by: Curious | May 5, 2008 2:52:55 PM

of course not, why should they?

Posted by: bruce | May 5, 2008 3:35:17 PM

Michigan is one of five states that spends more on prisons than on higher education. The others are Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, and Vermont. Michigan spends more on its prison system (and, therefore, on its system of higher education) than the total(s) spent by all those other four put together.
According to the Michigan Department of Corrections website, for 2005, the last year for which I've seen statistics, we had about 50,000 felony convictions in Michigan. About 22% of all felony offenders went to prison. We sent 1,700+ drug offenders, about 10% of all drug felony convictions, to prison. We sent more than 4,000 people to prison for violent offenses, an incarceration rate of about 40% for these offenses. "Other" offenders (essentially property offenses) were sent to prison at about a 20% rate, but there were so many that they made up, at about 4,900, the largest single component of the people entering prison in Michigan that year.
Michigan operates on a true indeterminate-sentence system, where the judge imposes a minimum sentence, the statute fixes the maximum (most of the time), and the parole board is expected to use its best judgment in deciding how long inmates actually serve. The Parole Board has become a political football since the early 1990's. As a result, Michigan's parole policies, which release fewer than half of those eligible for parole, also make a major contribution to the high costs of incarceration.
I practice criminal defense law.

Posted by: | May 5, 2008 4:33:48 PM

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