Mass Incarceration is Losing Ground to Fiscal Spending

A new study released by the Pew Research Center shows a decline in state prison populations in at least 26 states where state leaders are cognizant of fiscal burdens and have reversed a mass incarceration trend that goes back to the 80’s. According to the study, politicians who were once crying and screaming out loud to be elected on the platform of “tough on criminals” are now coming to their senses and realizing that their motto to lock up criminals has created a deep and severe void in their ability to maintain funding for such a ideology. In addition to the politics involved, people are getting tired of spending money on prisons that take huge chunks of the state budget with no return in their money thus making prisons a bad investment in the long run.

The Pew survey reveals that this reduction in state prisons vary from state to state but since 50 % of the states surveyed showed a decrease in population, the social awareness of incarceration and its costs are being realized and managed through better spending, the implementation of sound correctional alternatives and the closing of prisons to reduce overhead. The trend however, does not hold true for the other 50 % as there were 24 states that showed a growth in prison beds, some more severe than others. The fact remains that state leaders are now considering alternatives to the mass incarceration ideology in place for the last 40 years. In the 24* states where the state prison population grew, more than half of the increase occurred in just five states: Pennsylvania (2,122), Florida (1,527), Indiana (1,496), Louisiana (1,399) and Alabama (1,053).

The burden of operating prisons has taken its toll as the costs associated with prisons don’t stop at the operating budget. It also covers risk management claims, loss control concerns and the impact of deinstitutionalization that created prison beds for the mentally ill instead of being housed and treated in the former state hospitals. Medical care and mental health care are two of the most expensive components of prison programming and many are mandatory through accepted standards of care and living conditions regulated by courts and the Constitution.

In a surprised finding, the Pew study reveals “California’s state inmate count fell the most, shedding 4,257 prisoners in 2009. This follows a decline of 612 prisoners in 2008. Five other states experienced total reductions of more than 1,000 prisoners: Michigan (3,260), New York (1,699), Maryland (1,315), Texas (1,257) and Mississippi (1,233).” Common sense policy options included diverting low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison, strengthening community supervision and reentry programs, and accelerating the release of non-violent inmates who complete risk reduction programs. Adding to these numbers for California are the pending Supreme Court ordered release for approximately 34, 000 prisoners to be released within the next two years beginning on October1, 2011.Whether or not this decline will continue is the question for future decision making as there are no positive indicators that this trend is permanent or even steady enough to project future reductions or growth. The fact remains that since the uninterrupted growth of mass incarceration within all the 50 states, there are more tools available today to reduce prison growth than ever before.

Looking at the possible reasons for this current decline in state prison populations we find a pattern that could in fact be a part of the formula to reduce prison growth. Avoiding the temptation to announce this trend is permanent, the identification of these new tools reveals sound correctional thinking and practices that directly or indirectly impacts growth or incarceration statistics. Since the 80’s correctional professionals and researchers have developed better risk assessment instruments that allows better placement in custody levels to reduce costs and identifying low risk offenders from those who are high risk offenders that require higher custody placements. Another powerful tool is the ability to apply modern technology to assist in the supervision of offenders out in the community. This technology includes ankle bracelets equipped with GPS monitors, rapid drug testing equipment and remote reporting stations that can provide the ‘whereabouts” of the offender while under supervision. Polls show support for prison alternatives.

Polls reveal that citizens in many places have been supportive of community corrections rather than prison for nonviolent offenders. The Pew report reveals “71 percent of Texas respondents said they preferred “a mandatory intensive treatment program as an alternative to prison,” a level of support that went up to 83 percent when respondents were told the diversion of lower-level offenders could help avert $1 billion in new prison costs.”

Thus a combination of public policy, technology, focus on budget spending and cost controls have created a new vision of incarceration and the long lasting fiscal impact of such policies. In fact, looking at the news today, we can see the closure of the first Texas state prison as beds are becoming empty and alternatives are being sought to cut costs. Some early results have been dramatic. The New York Timers reported that “In 2007, Texas was facing a projected shortfall of about 17,000 inmate beds by 2012. But instead of building and operating new prison space, the State Legislature decided to steer nonviolent offenders into drug treatment and to expand re-entry programs designed to help recently released inmates avoid returning to custody. As a result, the Texas prison system is now operating so far under its capacity that this month it is closing a 1,100-bed facility in Sugar Land – the first time in the state’s history that a prison has closed. Texas taxpayers have saved hundreds of millions of dollars, and the changes have coincided with the violent crime rate’s dipping to its lowest level in 30 years.”

This budget pressure, a powerful and influential force among politicians and their constituents, is a result of correctional costs multiplying four fold since the beginning of the millennium and the inability for states to keep up with the associated costs to maintain mass incarceration efforts such as those of the 70’s and 80’s and peaking in the last couple of years.


Prison Count 2010 Errata (PDF)

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