Long-term incarceration of nonviolent criminals doesn’t benefit them, society or taxpayers
Prison reform has long been seen as the province of bleeding-heart liberals who push to have fewer people locked up.
But when you hear someone say, “We have to fundamentally rethink prisons” – and that someone is conservative icon Newt Gingrich – you know times are changing.
And there is this:
“The fact that so many Americans, including hundreds of thousands who are a threat to no one, are incarcerated means that something is wrong with our criminal justice system and the way we deal with both dangerous criminals and those whose behavior we simply don’t like.”
That from David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union.
The focus of prison reform clearly has changed. Even those who may not care much about the people locked up are starting to care about the staggering sums of money we’re spending on prisons.
And that’s an especially timely topic as Arizona and every other state struggle with epic budget deficits.
The Pew Center on the States recently completed a comprehensive study of how much this nation spends to punish people.
Its report “The Long Reach of American Corrections” found that 1 in 31 Americans is behind bars, on parole or on probation. Most important, it found that if states find ways to divert offenders to community supervision programs, costs can be slashed dramatically – without increasing danger to the public.
The math is simple: It costs $79 per day to keep a person in prison. It costs only $7.47 per day to keep a person on parole and $3.42 per day for a person on probation.
If it works and is as effective or more so at keeping citizens safe, why not try it?
Last year, Arizona spent $951 million running prisons. That will top $1 billion this year or next – a figure that works out to more than $114,000 per hour, every day of the year.
Arizona spends $9.50 of every $100 in its General Fund on prison – more than every state except Florida and Oregon. That makes less money available for schools, parks, health care, roads and all other state programs.
What can be done to reduce the bill? Basically, put fewer people in prisons for shorter periods of time. It can be done, and it works. New York has shown the way.
The Pew report found that between 1997 and 2007, New York experienced the greatest decrease in violent crime and the greatest decrease in prison population of any state.
Obviously there are violent people who must be sent to prison and kept there for a long time.
“But our research shows that prisons are housing too many people who can be managed safely and held accountable to the community at a far lower cost,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project.
There are proven ways of evaluating wrongdoers and determining whether they really need to be locked up, Gelb said.
And it’s not only who is locked up, but for how long. The average incarceration time served in the United States is about 30 months, Gelb said. The cost to taxpayers for the first month is the same as that for the last month. Yet “the deterrent impact starts dropping on Day 2,” he said in an interview.
“There really isn’t any evidence that letting someone out after 32 months instead of 35 months will spark a crime wave,” he said. Those additional months – at a cost of $2,400 per month per inmate – are “a substantial public cost without any public benefit.”
There is encouraging news in Arizona. Last year, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a law that gives offenders the same thing college coaches have: performance incentives.
The Safe Communities Act gives probationers an incentive to comply with conditions of their supervision. For every month they do so, probation time is cut by 20 days. Screw up, and the earned time is lost.
County probation departments also have incentives. Counties that reduce probation revocations are given 40 percent of the money the state saves by not having to imprison the inmates.
If all counties reduce revocations by 10 percent, the state could save $10 million, with $4 million returned to counties.
Gelb called the law “very exciting stuff” and “a very smart and courageous step.”
But backward steps already are being taken. Hammered by budget problems, the Legislature has cut funding for probation. Pima County alone will lay off 22 probation employees April 1 with another 33 vacant positions eliminated. Other counties face similar cuts.
Short-term savings, but the effect will likely be a jump in prison inmates. We haven’t yet learned.
Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, he’ll be on KUAT, commenting on the impending closure of the Tucson Citizen. He may be reached at 573-4662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Parole: Offenders who have spent time in prison and are released to complete the remainder of their sentence in the community. Intended to smooth a prisoner’s transition back to society.
• Probation: Instead of going to prison, low-level offenders are allowed to remain in the community as long as they exhibit good behavior and meet other conditions while supervised by a probation officer.
Corrections spending as a percentage of state General Fund spending:
New Mexico 4.6%
* Michigan spends 22% of its general fund on corrections, but the figure is not comparable because education is not included in the general fund, as it is in other states.