America’s Expensive Prisons

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Does shrinking the size of prison populations save taxpayers money?  Not always, says a study released May 23 by the Vera Institute of Justice.

In a survey of state  spending on incarceration, Vera researchers found that in 10 states where prison numbers declined, overall prison budgets actually increased by $1.1 billion between 2010 and 2015. Overall, 25 states—more than half of the 45 surveyed—reported prison spending increases during that period, even though the number of individuals incarcerated nationwide has been dropping since 2009.

The Vera researchers suggested the increase was due to higher costs related to personnel and health care. Salaries and pensions alone accounted for one-fifth of the total  $8 billion in prison spending in 2015, and health care for an aging prison population (the number of incarcerated individuals 55 and older more than doubled between 2010 and 2013) is swallowing ever-larger amounts of state prison budgets.

States such as California, Colorado and Pennsylvania—which have changed sentencing codes and established other policies aimed at reducing prison populations and providing alternatives to prison—registered some of the highest  spending  increases.

Nevertheless, the authors of the Vera  study said that lowering prison populations was essential to reforming a system that, with some 1.4 million people behind bars at its peak in 2009, leads the world in incarceration rates. (The number of prisoners has declined by about five per cent since then.)

They noted that in 13 states where prison populations dropped since 2010—including New York, Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey— prisons costs declined by a whopping $1.6 billion, without a corresponding danger to public safety. In fact, crime rates reduced by double-digit figures in some of those states.

“While simultaneously downsizing prison populations and spending is easier said than done, these 13 states prove that it is indeed possible,” wrote Christian Henrichson, Research Director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, in his introduction to the report.

“For those who are up to the challenge, this report makes it plain that a large sum of money is on the table.”

The report poses a sharp counterweight to the philosophy espoused by the Trump administration that reforming sentencing guidelines and other efforts to reduce prison populations over the past several years have generated new crime dangers to the nation.

But it also makes clear that the dollars-and-cents argument for cutting prison populations taken by some reformers has limitations. The survey found, for example, that in seven states where prison populations increased between 2010 and 2015, costs still declined by $254 million—largely because of reductions in staffing and budgetary constraints on improving facilities.

The Vera study was prepared by Chris Mai and Ram Subramanian.

A full version is available here.

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