Runaway Prison Costs Thrash State Budgets
Policy + Politics

Runaway Prison Costs Thrash State Budgets

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The prison system in the U.S. is in crisis mode. States across the country are grappling with massive budget shortfalls, much of which can be credited to the runaway growth of prison budgets over the past 25 years. At $50 billion spent on corrections a year nationwide, it’s the second-largest state expenditure behind Medicaid. To put it another way, one out of every 15 state dollars is spent on corrections in this country. Not coincidentally, one in 31 American adults are adrift in this bloated corrections matrix, stretching resources razor thin. Now swing the recession sledgehammer, and you have a nationwide crisis requiring states to come up with creative solutions to meet enormous budget deficits.

California’s prison system, the second largest in the country, has had its budget slashed for two years running, and its prisons filled to over 160 percent capacity. Thirty-three of them are operating at double capacity. Temporary beds, half of which are filled by probation or parole violators, are triple stacked in gyms and classrooms and crowding out sound rehabilitation programs. Sometimes two and three inmates share a cell designed for one man. Recent court rulings have mandated the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent capacity by 2012. All of which has forced the state to fashion solutions that look, at first blush, like a gamble.

It costs $44,563 to incarcerate a prisoner for a year
in California — nearly the same price as a year at
Harvard University with room and board.

According to state projections nearly 23,000 prisoners in California have been released on what has been called Non-Revocable Parole (NRP) over the past year. These prisoners, all of whom are non-violent and deemed to be low risk re-offenders, will not be released early, but once they are they will be on their own to sink or swim in the community, with no oversight from parole officers. The idea is to ease the case burden on the parole system, reduce the Department of Corrections budget and perhaps most importantly, reduce overcrowding in prisons.

There is certain to be some budgetary benefit. It costs $44,563 (the average for the U.S. is $28,817) to incarcerate a prisoner for a year in California — nearly the same price as a year at Harvard University with room and board. And nationally half of all state prisoners are incarcerated for probation or parole violations. However, there is no conclusive research to suggest how these ex-cons will function in society with no oversight from a parole officer. Unemployment among ex-offenders is common, and many will likely end up on state welfare. The first 14 months are critical for an ex-con’s transition back into the community, and having no state help with job placement or continued rehabilitation could put them right back behind bars. “Think of this economy we’re in. We have people with master’s degrees applying for entry-level jobs. How is a prisoner going to compete?” asks Terry Thornton of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Which begs the question, would leaving them out to dry actually cut state spending, or simply transfer it?

California is not alone in the wilderness. South Carolina’s prison population tripled between 1983 and 2009. Over that same period of time, spending increased by 500 percent to $394 million, and not only did recidivism actually increase, the FBI ranked South Carolina at the top of per capita violent crime rate. With 3,200 additional inmates projected by 2014, an additional $458 million in spending would be required. The good news is that all this pressure has produced some policy gems that may just reform the American prison system forever.

“Think of this economy we’re in. We have
people with Masters degrees applying for
entry-level jobs. How is a prisoner going
to compete?”

Enter Pew Center on the States. “What we do is a year-long process,” says Pew’s Adam Gelb. In a bipartisan working group, legislators from both sides of the aisle, corrections officials and Pew analysts look at the data, formulate new policy and get it to the governor’s desk. The result in South Carolina was the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010. It included sentencing reform, and a risk-and-needs assessment tool that determines the likelihood of an inmate to re-offend prior to parole. It strengthened parole supervision to set up newly released inmates for success in the community, and make it more difficult for non-violent parolees to be sent back to prison. The law is projected to save the state up to $175 million in construction costs and avoid more than $66 million in operating costs during the next five years.

Another historically conservative state is hoping to follow suit. “Louisiana is the poster child for criminal justice improvement,” says Louisiana State Secretary of Public Safety and Corrections, Jimmy Le Blanc. “We lock up more than any other state per 100,000 and our rate of violent crime is higher than most, so this hard on crime sell just isn’t working.” Put it all together and you have a state with overcrowded prisons and parish jails. Part of the problem is mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses, a nationwide scourge. “The longer you’ve been in prison, the quicker you go back,” says Le Blanc. “That’s a proven fact.”

Alison Shames, from the VERA Center for Justice, agrees. “If I’m a drug offender, I’ll be a better drug offender with more criminal friends, less family ties, less options, and I’ll be a greater risk to society if go to prison for three years instead of one.”

Recidivism is a vicious cycle for taxpayers as well as prisoners, but it’s not completely unavoidable. When Le Blanc served as warden at Dixon State Prison, he brought the recidivism rate down to 38 percent from 47 percent on the strength of progressive re-entry initiatives.

“Most of it is common sense stuff,” he says. “We make sure our inmates have a residence plan, a job or a potential job, and a continuum of care for substance abuse and mental health.” Before release, inmates also go through a basic risk-and-needs assessment, like the one implemented in South Carolina, to determine what kind of education or vocational training they want or need and there’s a community care component too. Le Blanc is even working to get some parole and probation cases into the hands of community social workers rather than law enforcement officers.

It’s all very warm and fuzzy, yet such policies have been championed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. “It’s conservative states with conservative leaders that are out front tackling this issue,” says Gelb. The trend started in Texas, when in 2007 the state scuttled a plan to build eight new prisons at a cost of $2 billion and replaced it with beefed up community treatment and supervision that cost $241 million. The reason is clear, according to Le Blanc. “If we get these things accomplished, it’s going to bring down recidivism.”  Which in turn will ease the state’s financial burden.

Typically parole programs cost taxpayers
$7.47 per day per parolee, while prisons
cost $78.95 per day per inmate nationwide.

Getting it accomplished won’t be easy. Le Blanc points to a statewide $1.6 billion budget shortfall, which translates as a 35 percent cut, or $151 million, from the corrections budget. Thankfully, hard times have ushered what Le Blanc sees as a new era of political collaboration in Baton Rouge, and he promises to maintain his re-entry initiatives. “If we want to reduce the prison population we have to maintain our parole and probation divisions,” he says. “Seventy percent of parole or probation revocations happen within the first 14 months. That’s for violent and non-violent offenders. They need to be connected, followed up with. You can’t just let them cold turkey out of prison.” Yet that’s what California continues to do.

There’s no argument that California is a state with its back against the wall. The budget for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was slashed by $1 billion in 2010, and under Governor Brown’s new budget the hope is $1.4 billion more can be saved in 2011, but that includes a $150 million reduction in rehabilitation programs at a time when recidivism is at an alarming rate — 67 percent and 55 percent of California’s inmates are locked up for parole or probation violations rather than a new crime. 
Organizations like Pew and VERA and a growing chorus of conservative politicians argue that it is much smarter to couple non-revocable parole with an investment in beefed up parole programs that include pillars like substance abuse, job placement and cutting edge cognitive behavioral therapy programs that according to Gelb, “help identify triggers that spur criminal behavior and train parolees how to avoid them and maximize positive influences in their lives.” Typically parole programs like these cost taxpayers $7.47 per day per parolee, while prisons cost $78.95 per day per inmate nationwide. Trouble is those budget cuts are coming. “And what could be easier than cutting programs that help convicted felons?” Asks Gelb. “But that could be pennywise and pound foolish. Especially if your goal is to get taxpayers a better return on their security and law enforcement investment.”