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November 8, 2010

When and how will state GOP leaders start cutting expensive criminal justice programming?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this piece in today's New York Times, which is headlined "Now in Power, G.O.P. Vows Cuts in State Budgets."  Here is how the piece begins:

Republicans who have taken over state capitols across the country are promising to respond to crippling budget deficits with an array of cuts, among them proposals to reduce public workers’ benefits in Wisconsin, scale back social services in Maine and sell off state liquor stores in Pennsylvania, endangering the jobs of thousands of state workers.

States face huge deficits, even after several grueling years of them, and just as billions of dollars in stimulus money from Washington is drying up.

With some of these new Republican state leaders having taken the possibility of tax increases off the table in their campaigns, deep cuts in state spending will be needed. These leaders, committed to smaller government, say that is the idea.

“We’re going to do what families and businesses all over this country have already had to do, and that is live within their means,” said Brian Bosma, a Republican who will soon become the speaker of the Indiana House, alongside a Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, and a supermajority of Republicans in the State Senate.

Mr. Bosma said state revenues next year are expected to reach only the levels of about five years ago, creating an enormous strain. “We’re going to do what is right, and we’ll let the politics land where they may,” he said.

Disappointingly, the rest of the article avoids any discussion of the expensive (and sometimes wasteful?) criminal justice programming that could or should be on the chopping block as cost-cutting axes start to swing.  Every part of big criminal justice government, from police to prosecutors to prison guards to probation officers, need to be helping state officials effectively figure out which parts of the criminal justice system can or should be able to "do more with less" in the coming years.

As this great recent Vera Institute report highlights, over the last 25 years "states’ corrections spending went up by 674 percent," and now state spending on corrections systems "constitute the fourth-largest category of states’ collective spending, following education, Medicaid, and transportation."  In addition, as the Vera report also details, lots and lots of states used federal ARRA stimulus moneys to pay for criminal justice programming over the last few years.

A lot of smart policy wonks think there is spending fat to be cut in the arena of mass incarceration and the drug war, and I am certain that GOP leaders are not going to be able to balance budgets without at least considering cuts to criminal justice programming.  Some of this cutting has already started moving forward in a few states, but it will be especially interesting to see how the new cost-focused GOP (and others) work through both the politics and practicalities of these issues in the months and years ahead.

November 8, 2010 at 08:15 AM | Permalink


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Call me a cynic, but I imagine any discussion of cuts to corrections budgets will start with whatever remains of various states' rehabilitative or educational programs. A lot of noise has been made about the Tea Party and its spurring of the GOP to focus on its cost-controlling, small government philosophies, but I didn't hear anything out of the prominent Ohio state candidates, at least, that made me think that libertarian bent would manifest itself in things like greater usage of home confinement, cutting back on the war on drugs, or other cost cutting measures that could be considered "soft on crime."

Although I remain hopeful the Ohio Highway Patrol's robust speed limit enforcement regime is de-funded to some extent.

Posted by: T.O. | Nov 8, 2010 8:24:36 AM

I'm always amused when the NYT, which has less than no use for the Republican Party, let's us know what it would be wise for the Republican Party to do.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 8, 2010 9:31:46 AM

How much would you pay to not be hit over the head for your wallet, to not be pistol whipped in a carjacking, to not be raped, to not be murdered? Say you would pay $10,000 to avoid each crime (more likely $100,000 if health costs and loss of productivity are counted). Say, each criminal commits an average of a crime a week, for a total of 50 crimes a year (more likely 500 crimes a year). Incapacitation would prevent $500,000 in damage on the outside, although the crimes may go on in the prison, including all the violent crimes above. Say the government spends $50,000 a year to maintain a person in a beautiful jail. What other government programs has a 10 fold return on investment?

I doubt many mere drug users are in prison. Please, recall that the plea bargained charge may be non-violent, but unrelated to the actual charge, and totally fictitious. There are lots of people in jail for contempt when they have not made child support payments. Start by freeing them.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 8, 2010 9:40:36 AM

The notion that the average criminal commits a crime per week, a violent crime as you seem to allege, is just silly.

Posted by: T.O. | Nov 8, 2010 11:47:00 AM

The US crime policy simply put is imprison and keep downtrodden.

I have no problem with imprisonment. While there is room for improvement over how long is appropriate for certain crimes, the issue is not important to my particular post.

I believe the biggest saving can be made in the post-prison portion of things. The policy of keeping criminals downtrodden is the true money pit.

Drug dealer, sex-offender, or thief, if you've done your time, completed your probation, then I see no reason why you should continue to have a black mark.

Granted there are some criminals who just don't learn from their mistakes. In a majority of cases though, I would imagine that the first jail/prison experience is sobering enough to cause a person to stick to the straight and narrow.

The return to crime is usually out of a sense of hopelessness. Not able to find work, housing, voting rights, etc. tears on a person.

If more emphasis was placed on true rehabilitation in the form of counseling and job services recidivism would drop. By job services I don't mean finding work as a laborer or fast food. There are many people convicted that are well educated people and can be productive in respected fields.

Over time, prison populations would decline and require less resources to operate.

Politicians and the public are only interested in quick fixes which rarely seem to work. Criminal justice, economics, etc., requires real time and patience to have effective change.

Posted by: Questions Authority | Nov 8, 2010 11:59:47 AM

"... and now state spending on corrections systems 'constitute the fourth-largest category of states’ collective spending, following education, Medicaid, and transportation.'"

Vera's source for that is the National Association of State Budget Officers' State Expenditures Report. NASBO has six categories, of which corrections is fifth. Vera gets corrections up for fourth out of five by combining NASBO's two education categories.

Whether corrections is fourth of five or fifth of six, it is not the cost that is breaking state budgets. Education and medicaid spending dwarf it.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Nov 8, 2010 3:24:23 PM


The Boston Globe also has an editorial The Prison Boom Comes Home to Roost. I don't know if the the link will work.

We require studies and statistics to underscore any policy change - frequently those produced are not evidence based. In this case it really doesn't matter how poorly or fairly the cost has been quantified. There are immeasurable costs that can't be monetized.

Posted by: beth | Nov 8, 2010 4:43:54 PM

"“We’re going to do what families and businesses all over this country have already had to do, and that is live within their means,” said Brian Bosma, a Republican...."

Great talking point. Too bad it is false. No families and businesses use credit? Then what was the credit scare all about that required government bail outs and regulation because businesses could not get loans? And no families have mortgages or finance their cars or use credit cards? It would be interesting to know if Bosma is in any personal debt at all.

Some people call a false statement a lie. Still a great talking point.

Posted by: George | Nov 8, 2010 8:40:33 PM

TO: In the report from here:


The self-reported count is close to 200. Because alcohol is the substance most likely to cause a crime, and is associated with memory loss, the self-reported count of close to 200 may be a marked underestimate. I am guessing it may be closer to 500 crimes a year, with 25% being violent.

Kill a criminal, add 500 X $10,000=$5,000,000 of value to the economy every year he is dead. That does not include the value of the 40% drop in the value of real estate whenever a criminal moves onto a street. That value may be over $15,000,000. Kill a criminal, add $20 million of value to the economy every year, guaranteed, with no risk to capital. The lawyer dumbass must be fired from the criminal law, so the killing may begin properly.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 8, 2010 11:19:58 PM

Policy making is really a tough job but as a citizen we need to be part of it. This is exercising our rights to be heard be a part of the nation, a citizen, a responsible citizen. Well, there are still a lot room for improvement and this won't stop here. By the way, thanks a lot for what you have posted. This is really abreath of fresh air. Great info you have shared.

Posted by: KeithSanroman | Nov 9, 2010 3:11:13 AM

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