“One in 31 Adults”

by reader Run

“One in 31 Adults”

are under the control of the correctional system (prison, parole, probation) according to a March 2009 Pew Center Report of the same title. 1 in every one hundred adults are imprisoned in jail, state prisons, or federal facilities. 25 years ago those under the control of the correctional system was one in 77 adults. The population under correctional control is ~ 7.3 million (2007).

What does a growing prison and correctional population cost for taxpayers? To support the growing state prison population, costs range from ~$13,000 in Louisiana to ~$45,000 in Rhode Island annually (2005). The average is ~$23,000 annually, “US Imprisons 1 in every 100 Adults” NYT. The cost of imprisonment compares nicely to a state or private college education (another story). As a whole the US imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world from which the cost burden of housing prisoners has become an issue for states with a decreasing/stagnant economy and decreasing tax revenues. Paradoxically while costing more, jails and prisons for many communities are a stable and growing business employing people, services, and a fast growing part of the rural economies.

Incarceration Nation as one part of, Schmidt, Warner, and Gupta’s “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration” (Real-World Economics Review, Issue no. 53) suggest much of the increased numbers of those under control of the correctional system result from harsher sentencing guidelines which in turn also have a lesser impact on crime. The mandated guidelines (drugs, three strikes, recidivism issues, etc.) result in higher imprisonment rates and consequently long sentences, higher costs to house prisoners as more prisoners are kept interned for longer periods, and have a diminished impact on crime.

By historical standards the rate of imprisonment in the US is 350+ percent of what it was in 1980. Globally, the US is 3 times higher than the nest in line for imprisonment, seven times higher than the median rate for an OCED country, and seventeen times higher than Iceland which has the lowest rate of incarceration. And yet, the increases in imprisonment can not be explained with certainty by increases in crime. While crime did increase from 1990 to 1992, there was a fall off of crime in later years. In 1992, violent crime peaked at 44% higher than its 1980 level and property crime at 7% above its 1980 level. During the same time period, incarceration grew to 150% of its 1980 level. After 1992, crime decreased to a level close to its 1980 level.

It is possible to make both an economic and crime impact argument for less harsh sentencing guidelines. Table 3 illustrates 1 in 4 drug offenders are more likely to be imprisoned rather than placed on probation or released earlier on parole. The increase for drug offenders is up from 1 in 10 in 1980.

“The most sophisticated analyses generally agree that increased incarceration rates have some effect on reducing crime, but the scope of that impact is limited: a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with a 2 to 4 percent drop in crime. Moreover, analysts are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes than past increases did and will cost taxpayers substantially more to achieve.” Stemen (2007). See also Austin et al. (2007), Irwin, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg (1999), and Public Safety Performance Project (2007).

“The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration”

While the study suggests there is a correlation between harsher sentencing guidelines and the lessening of crime by imprisoning people at earlier ages and harsher sentencing both of which acts as a deterrent to crime, the impact is small and costly in dollars and in societal costs. The increased harsher sentencing guidelines diminishes with the severity of the sentencing and is determined to be as little as a reduction of 2% in crime with an increase of 10% in incarceration. Played out in the harsher sentencing guidelines are costs of ~$75 billion in 2008 up from under $20 billion in 1980 with 60% being borne by state and local governments.

Table 4 suggests a modification of sentencing guidelines of ~50% in sentencing guidelines at the federal, state, and local level would result in reductions in cost of ~$17B with the greatest impact being felt at both a state and local level, the governments restricted by budgeting mandates. The changing of minimum sentencing, truth in sentencing, and three strikes guidelines for non-violent crimes would contribute significantly to increases in prison population.

This only touches upon sentencing guidelines. Reviewing the actions of state parole boards, one would find many of them are denying parole and holding prisoners well beyond the minimums declared by the sentencing guidelines which are followed by state judges. Add to this an interpretation of a “life sentence” to mean a life in prison in the parole board system the same as a sentence of “natural life.” In effective, the Parole Board is acting as a secondary and more restrictive court in action as appointed officials. Parole boards have little, if any, legal basis to interpret the law differently then the sentencing as interpreted by judges of state law. States could achieve a significant cost reduction in prison costs by holding state parole boards to the sentencing guidelines passed by the state and representative of the population who elected the legislature who passed the guidelines. This restriction on parole boards would add to the cost reduction achievable through a lessening of sentencing guidelines.