Scaling back prison costs

Posted on January 30, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

If there’s one truly good reform that ought to come out of the budget deficits plaguing states across the nation, it’s a renewed look at out of control costs for criminal incarceration.

It now costs more in many states to house a prisoner for a year than to send a student to college. How did things get so out of kilter? From a fiscal planning standpoint, society should value education exponentially more highly than it values incarceration.

The future of the republic rests on the former, while the latter is merely a necessity to dispense — as economically as possible, one might presume — with those who seek to harm and destroy our society.

Yet state spending on corrections has spiked and remains on a steep incline. Five states devote more of their general fund to prisons than to colleges, according to a 2007 Pew Charitable Trust study. The national average ratio of corrections expenditures to higher education is .60, which means 60 cents spent on prisons for every dollar invested in college.

Thankfully, Arkansas isn’t among the five upside-down states (Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware), and our .46 level is slightly below the U.S. average.

The alarming thing is, our current ratio represents a nearly 330 percent increase since 1987 — one of the largest leaps in the nation.
Only Colorado, Pennsylvania and Vermont saw larger increases. And, in another Pew study a year later, Arkansas cracked the top 10 states in corrections as a percentage of general fund expenditures for fiscal year 2007. Trending those data over the 1987-2007 period, only one state had a higher percentage point gain than Arkansas: Vermont, which leads the nation by spending a whopping $1.37 on corrections for every higher education dollar.

What’s even more amazing is that few would characterize higher education costs as standing still the past 20 years. For corrections spending to be gaining on it so dramatically (and even surpassing it in a handful of states) the whole dollar costs must be escalating at a near astronomical rate.

And to what end? Jail and prison expansions may be necessary to accommodate a growing inmate population, but the facilities and services have been notched up as if we’re constructing condos, not cells.

For all our extra spending, are we getting better prisoners? Hardly. Nearly three out of four inmates will suffer an assault while in prison, and two out of three that get released will be back behind bars within three years.

That’s why reacting to budget crunches by releasing criminals early is the worst thing to do.

The bottom line is, when it comes to prisons we’re way overspending. And now the time (and fiscal crisis) has come to scale it back.
Bringing prison spending back into proportion will require two things. First, we must adopt the Pew Cente’s recommendation that offenders be sorted by risk to public safety. Violent criminals need to serve hard time in expensive-to-operate prisons; nonviolent offenders can be punished and supervised in other less costly ways.

Secondly, we must greatly lower the standard of living for prison inmates, which will in turn greatly lower the cost of prison operations.

As a nation, we enjoy a standard of living unparalleled in human history. We take our luxury and abundance for granted; criminals take advantage of the softness it has created in us.

Violent offenders display a barbarism incompatible with modern civilized society. They lack the basic scruples and principles that are common in normal, law-abiding Americans.

Much of the work ethic, moral fortitude and respect for rights and property we collectively possess were instilled in us over generations. Those virtues frequently originated in a life carved out of the frontier.

Since criminals obviously have deficits in their own unlawful character, why not model prisons after pioneer life? Surely not even the most misguided social apologist could argue that exposing violent criminals to the conditions under which Laura Ingalls Wilder thrived is somehow constitutionally verboten.

If so, more than half our population endured cruel and unusual punishment in the pursuit of our manifest destiny. It’s an insult to their sacrifice, and our own heritage, to act as though any citizens — especially deplorable criminals — are too good to tread in their path.

Besides, a pioneer model need not be an exact replica. There is still much to be learned from an isolated life without television or cell phones or the Internet, with a diet of the simplest fare and a workday that follows the sundial.

Sentencing troubled young men to retrace the steps of adolescent Abe Lincoln might do more wonders for their equally troubled souls than any modern intervention program ever dreamed of doing.

Arkansas is on the wrong track in corrections spending. If we want to avoid the fate now facing Californians and others, with criminals by the thousands being loosed over budget shortfalls, the time to change our direction is now.

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