Arizona legislators have turned their eyes on the state prison system as they struggle to balance a budget deeply in the red.
That’s a reasonable place to look for savings. The Department of Corrections is one of the state’s largest agencies, with one of the most massive budgets.
But if legislators want immediate savings to help balance the budget for fiscal 2010, they are on the wrong track. The only safe and effective way to save money on prisons is to incarcerate fewer people. And that will take time to show results.
Arizonans spend about $1 billion per year to lock up almost 40,000 people. That works out to about $114,000 per hour. Arizona spends a larger share of its general fund on prisons – 9.5 percent – than every state except Oregon and Florida.
There is little doubt that we don’t have to put all those people behind bars. Other states have found that there are less-expensive ways to punish criminals while still protecting the public.
But Arizona has steadfastly stuck to the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key philosophy. And we are paying an inordinate amount of money as a result – money that could be spent far more productively on education, health care, child welfare and any number of other state needs.
As they looked to cut the costs of prisons, legislators looked in the wrong places.
They first talked about cutting inmate programs, including special treatment for sex offenders and a work-based education program. But those reduce recidivism. Cutting spending there will result in higher costs in future years.
Legislators also discussed running prisons with fewer corrections officers. That would create unsafe environments for remaining officers as well as inmates. That’s not an acceptable way to save money.
It takes time – and it takes thought by legislators – to save money on prisons. There would have to be changes in the state’s criminal code to allow early release of some inmates under very strict circumstances.
There also must be a reduction in the number of mandatory sentences, giving judges more leeway in deciding what is an appropriate sentence, within a given range. Mandatory sentences, mostly for drug-related offenses, have put large numbers of people in prisons with no appreciable reduction in the crime rate.
Money can be saved on prisons. Other states have done and are doing it. But savings are long term and shouldn’t be counted on to fix Arizona’s current budget problems.