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State Prisons Saving Money by Shaving Time

Read Part II: “Private Prisons: Lowering the Bar to Turn a Buck”

According to the Pew Center on the States Prison Count 2010, “As of January 1, 2010, there were 1,403,091 persons under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities, 5,739 (0.4 percent) less than on December 31, 2008.  This marks the first year-to-year drop in the nation’s state prison population since 1972.”

The report found a large variation among the states, 27 states saw a decrease (some, like Rhode Island, saw a substantial decline) and 23 states saw an increase (the largest in Indiana). The recession has probably played some part in this decline as some states are dumping prisoners to save money.

However, it’s not all the recession, since 2007, before the economic crisis, prison admissions have been declining and releases rising. For starters, states have been coming up with new ways to deal with recidivism and other factors. (Recidivism is a relapse into criminal behavior, often resulting in a return to prison.) For example, California has been using intermediate sanctions to deal with low-risk parolees instead of immediately sending them back to prison. Texas invested in “a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs” instead of building new prisons, offering more lower-cost sentencing options.

Even though 0.4 percent doesn’t seem like a huge amount it is significant, considering that since 1973 the prison population and imprisonment rates have risen substantially—mainly because of stiffer sentencing and release laws. In short, more people were sent to prison and kept there. In 2008, 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. were behind bars—an all-time high.

Another explanation to the drop is the simplest: Crime is down. As baby boomers age their crime rate decreases. However, this drop may not continue as the children of the baby boomers, the echo boomers, are expected to start “picking up the slack.” And that drop is just on the state side; the federal prisons show a different story. The number of prisoners in the Federal Bureau of Prisons has increased.

Crime down, spending up
“Corrections costs have quadrupled in just the past 20 years, and now account for 1 of every 15 general fund discretionary dollars. Corrections has been the second fastest-growing category of state budgets, behind only Medicaid, and nearly 90 percent of that spending has gone to prisons,” reports Pew. This spending has gone from more than $12 billion in 1988 to over $50 billion in 2008. To put this in perspective, in 2008, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, states spent $158.2 billion on higher education and only $25.1 billion on public assistance.

Spending so much money is hard to justify when recidivism rates remain so high. In fact, with state budgets facing drastic shortfalls and the American public’s changing attitude, corrections spending will inevitably need to face a major change. The majority of the American public would rather see intensive treatment offered instead of prison, especially for lower-level offenders. New technology may also help lower costs, from advances in GPS, which can keep offenders or parolees on house arrest or in a tracking program, to cheaper and more effective drug testing.

Broke states releasing prisoners
California prisons are so overcrowded that in August 2009 the federal court ordered the state to cut its prison population by over 40,000 inmates, or 30 percent, in two years.

Just this month, NPR reported that Los Angeles County is too broke to keep prisoners. According to NPR, “Over the past three months, more than 350 inmates from the nation’s largest county jail have been handed what amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

NPR listed two cases, one where the man only served half of his sentence and another where a prisoner served only 10 days of an 80 day sentence.

And last month, in Sacramento, 22-year-old Kevin Peterson made news when he was released after only serving half of a four-month probation violation sentence and arrested for attempted rape less than a day later.

While this case is indeed troubling, releasing some of the Americans behind bars could be a good thing—if it is done correctly. Instead of cutting the sentences of every prisoner, why not only release nonviolent, low-level offenders, or place prisoners convicted of low-level drug charges into treatment instead, then we may actually see some improvement and less repeat offenders.

According to the American Corrections Association, in 2007, “the average daily cost per state prison inmate per day in the US was $67.55. State prisons held 253,300 inmates for drug offenses in 2007. That means states spent approximately $17,110,415 per day to imprison drug offenders, or $6,245,301,475 per year.” That is a lot of money that we could save and, by the time we released the drug offenders, we would be able to keep the murderers, child molesters and rapists for their full sentence.

Read Part II: “Private Prisons: Lowering the Bar to Turn a Buck” which covers private prisons as investments and the moral and ethical debate over their very existence.

Cara Bruce is the co-editor of Robot Hearts: True and Twisted Tales of Love in the Digital Age.

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