Law, Politics, The Economy

The trouble with prison isn’t that it doesn’t work; the trouble is that it doesn’t work very well but does cost a fortune compared with other ways of reducing crime. Feeding, clothing, housing and guarding a convict for a year costs more than $20,000, plus the price of physically constructing the facilities in which the expected transformation takes place. Moreover, while each additional year you add to an offender’s sentence costs the same amount (until the offender gets old and develops serious medical problems, at which point it increases), the anti-crime benefits of each additional year are less than the costs of the year before. At this point, trying to control crime by building more prisons is like trying to blow your nose with $20 bills: It works, but it’s not a very good idea.

So says Matthew Yglesias in an article in The American Prospect. What is interesting is that state governments all over the country are slowly waking up to this fact. In an excellent (but unfortunately not online) article in Dollars and Sense, Julie Falk, as well as in a special section of the latest American Prospect, the same story is told: While federal programs in the eighties offered to subsidize new prisons if states enacted tougher sentencing laws, boosting the prison population from 500,000 to over 2 million, there was no funding for the long term maintenance of these prisoners. Suddenly faced with budget crises, states are starting to re-think truth-in-sentencing” laws, and are beginning to release thousands of (mostly non violent) criminals back into the streets.

Some of these States have opted for programs that give them a bigger bang for their buck — such as Adult Transition Centers to help people readjust to ordinary life. Other states have simply pushed people out of the prisons, with their numbers [still] on their chest,” and no support whatsoever — anything to cut costs. There is one big exception to this national trend — the Federal government:

Standing against this wave of reforms, however, is one conspicuous holdout: the federal government. In September, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that, almost without exception, federal prosecutors were to go for the maximum sentence in all cases.

As Drake Bennett and Robert Kuttner point out, the feds can afford to pick and choose their cases, so they don’t face quite the same financial pressures that state governments do.

Unlike nearly every state, the federal government doesn’t have to balance its budget, and appropriations for the Federal Bureau of Prisons are a sliver compared with, say, Social Security or the military. In states, on the other hand, corrections usually ranks as a big-ticket item, just below health insurance and education.

Of course, some communities are very upset about these reforms, having invested heavily in building prisons which they hoped would support the community for years to come. Prisoner phone calls, at exorbitant rates, are a major source of local revenue.

UPDATE: TalkLeft has the latest from California, as well as an earlier related link.