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June 22, 2009

"Prison spending still shackles state budget"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective commentary from a local paper in Colorado.  Here are a few excerpts from a piece that effectively spotlights how significant and consequential prison sepnding has become in that state:

Recent history shows that prison spending in Colorado, and the sentencing polices that drive that spending, has been constraining state spending for decades, and will continue to do so into the near future.

In 1985, the Legislature doubled the maximum penalties in Colorado's presumptive sentencing range for all levels of felony crimes.  The average sentence length quickly increased by two-thirds, and Colorado's inmate population more than doubled in the next five years.  It has more than doubled again since.

In an effort to keep pace with the capacity demands of such unprecedented growth in the prison population, successive legislatures and governors have taken Colorado taxpayers on an extreme prison spending spree that has pushed corrections spending from less than 3 percent to nearly 9 percent of general fund spending.

It is a simple formula, but a dramatic increase in spending for one item as a percentage of the state's general fund (prisons) necessarily means that other spending items (such as health care and higher education) have had to decrease as a percentage of general fund appropriation.

This year's Joint Budget Committee budget briefing notes that in the 16 years since Colorado lawmakers implemented the 6 percent spending limit, prison spending has grown "at a compound annual rate of 9.5 percent."  If prison spending had actually been held to the 6 percent growth, then last year's Department of Corrections operating budget would have been around $430 million; instead it was nearly $677 million.

So the current opportunity cost of Colorado's extreme prison spending spree is a quarter billion dollars that could have been spent on health care and higher education.

This commentary serves to highlight, yet again, why I think anyone concerned about government growth and excessive government spending needs to be focusing on sentencing reform.  Beyond the opportunity costs noted in this commentary, there is the inevitable additional costs from increased prison populations that get passed on to both state and federal taxpayers.

Some recent related posts about the realities of the prison economy:

June 22, 2009 at 11:50 AM | Permalink


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But what about the cost of crimes that would have otherwise been prevented?

Posted by: federalist | Jun 22, 2009 12:28:38 PM

"But what about the cost of crimes that would have otherwise been prevented?"

That's a trade-off that most voters can't and don't make. States lack the Federal government's practically limitless power of printing money and leaving repayment to another generation. So when they increase incarceration rates, they have to raise taxes or cut something else. Thanks to the success of the modern conservative movement, tax increases are always perilous, leaving legislators with a straight trade-off between prisons and other services that are more highly prized by voters, such as education.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jun 22, 2009 1:32:53 PM

If Colorado voters in large numbers start telling their legislators that they want more money spent on education and less on incarceration changes will be made. Instead they said they wanted violent and sex offenders as well as drug traffickers locked up and they got what they asked for.

The correction population depends on where you live and the Colorado prison population most likely differs from those of New Mexico and Nebraska. To understand why the Colorado prison population grew rapidly you have to do a lot of historical research but it is a safe bet that nobody in Colorado government wanted the cancerous growth they experienced.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 22, 2009 5:45:26 PM

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