Shrinking Prisons: Good Crime-Fighting and Good Government
Corrections is the ultimate human service—and it can be done more cheaply and more effectively without locking so many people up.
Liberals have long advocated prison reforms like reduced sentence lengths and alternatives to incarceration. Recently, however, conservatives have put these ideas on the congressional agenda—and their inspiration comes from that bastion of tough-on-crime conservatism, Texas.
Surprising? Perhaps. But seeing this coming didn’t require any sort of crystal ball. One had only to notice the forces driving every trend today: less money, higher expectations, and lower “weight.” Around the world and especially in the United States, both the public and private sectors have been under pressure since the Great Recession to cut costs and make the most of constrained resources. At the same time, consumers have become accustomed to expect better and better performance for their dollars. Many people have dismissed as “immature” or unrealistic the electorate’s expectation that governments provide both lower taxes and more services, but it’s not unreasonable given what the private sector has been able to deliver over the last generation. And the reason for declining cost coupled with higher performance, of course, has been technology that moved the economy in a more and more virtual.
As Diane Coyle observed almost two decades ago, this means a world that is increasingly “weightless”: Every year, an increasing percentage of economic output comes in the services, or, like finance, via electronic media, rather than heavy machinery, consumer goods, or other “things.” Other technological advances have led to the miniaturization of many of the physical goods that are produced. Business organizations are flatter and leaner, firms carry smaller inventories, just-in-time manufacturing and the “sharing economy” require fewer facilities and capital goods to produce more output. Everywhere, places, facilities and things mean less and less—everywhere, that is, except government.
It’s overdue, then, for the public sector to revisit the costliest, least productive, and least “weightless” business lines in its portfolios—human services generally, and the corrections system in particular. What smacks more of outdated big government than large, costly, coercive institutions?
Incarceration as we know it today was originally a “progressive” idea. Compared to the days when every offense was punishable by execution—or at least corporal punishment—and prisons were simply a slow form of death, the modern penitentiary was conceived as a humane instrument of rehabilitation, not just punishment: The idea was that sitting alone in a cell and contemplating one’s transgressions—like a penitent—would lead to self-improvement. A close cousin, historically and conceptually, of the poorhouse and insane asylum, the penitentiary proved as much a misnomer, however, as today’s “corrections.” Nonetheless, along with the notion of redemption through hard work, the concept appealed to Jacksonian reformers and launched the first great era of prison construction in America. The second wave peaked, similarly, with the advent of the Progressive Era, which refined the concept with such additions as parole, probation, and indeterminate sentencing.
The third and latest wave of prison enthusiasm, however, was a reaction—against both liberal modifications to incarceration regimes and the social tumult of the ’60s. The War on Drugs increased the numbers of prisoners and lengthened the duration of sentences. The surge in incarceration also has been directly related to race: African-American males are jailed at about six times the rate of whites and three times the rate of Hispanics.
As a result, the United States today has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world: 743 adults per 100,000 population, or nearly 2.3 million adults, nearly one-quarter of the world’s total prison population. More than twice that number are on probation or parole, with more than 70,000 juveniles in detention, as well—roughly one in every 30 Americans is under supervision of some sort, a seven-fold increase since 1980.
The U.S. prison population has declined every year since 2008. With skyrocketing budgets and declining revenues, many state governments began looking for more effective ways to reduce crime and keep inmates from returning to prison once released. But the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center noted recently that it was not just fiscal pressures that led to the shift: Overall crime rates fell around 25 percent from 1988-2008, and there has been a growing recognition that the War on Drugs was counterproductive.
In 2007, around $74 billion was spent on corrections nationwide, a per-inmate cost of about $30,600, ranging from $13,000 in Louisiana to $45,000 in Rhode Island. The line in Pennsylvania, where I’m from, is that it costs more for a year in the State Pen than a year at Penn State. That level of spending put the average state prison cost at about $80 per day; local jails are somewhat cheaper, at $60. In comparison, in Broward County, Florida, supervised pretrial release costs about $7 a day per person, while jail costs $115 a day. The most expensive alternative—a drug court, which is an intensively supervised prison-diversion program—costs $10.33 per day. Probation costs as little as $0.33 per day.
Institutionalized correction, while more expensive, is less effective in reducing most crime than virtually any alternative. A 2001 report by New Jersey’s State Commission on Criminal Resentencing found that alternative sanctions and prisons have very similar effects on recidivism, while alternative sanctions free up prison bed space for more violent offenders. Similarly, a 2002 Justice Policy Institute report on Community Corrections programs in Ohio found shorter stays and lower recidivism or re-incarceration rates for clients from community-based correctional programs than for prison inmates.
As a result, many states—mostly Southern—are changing their approach, and saving money. Oklahoma, which was recently in the spotlight for its hard line on executions, has reduced its prison population by nearly 1,800 prisoners, projected to save the state approximately $120 million over the next 10 years. Georgia has become a leader in the use of “drug courts,” which divert offenders into alternatives to prison.
The Urban Institute reports that eight states—Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina—have reliable enough data to provide preliminary findings on the effects of system reforms. These show early successes in slowing and even reducing prison-population-growth rates.
But the poster child is Texas. In 2007, conservative legislators in Austin were staggered by projections for how much it would cost to run the Department of Criminal Justice if the system went unchanged. The state faced the prospect of building approximately 17,000 new prison beds within five years at a cost of nearly $1.15 billion. Instead, the legislature budgeted approximately $250 million for community-treatment programs and increased the number of inmates served by in-prison treatment and rehabilitation programs. In 2009, the state added reentry-program coordinators to help reduce the number of released inmates who return to prison. Texas’s effort now forms the basis for the bipartisan prison-reform legislation moving through Congress.
This has implications beyond prison reform. Governments today face increasing pressure to cut costs, but their citizens still want and need government services. Elected officials everywhere must figure out how to square this circle—to deliver better service at lower cost. A major part of the answer will lie in moving from costly, outdated “solutions” based on large one-size-fits-all institutions to individualized, dispersed, home- and community-based solutions that use new technologies and evidence-based strategies.
As I’ve written here before, government solutions often involve huge one-size-fits-all programs. In the industrial era, society learned that economies of scale produce the most efficient outcomes. But what we have learned in the information age is that individualized solutions are more effective and often cheaper, too.
The corrections field shows most starkly that the conservative critique of liberal programs—large, outdated, costly, and one-sized-fits-all—is valid, but also that the solutions liberals have been advocating for the past several decades, with the benefits of years of experimentation and evidence, provide a path forward. (In a future post, I’ll discuss how this is true across virtually every area of human services.)
Modernizing our approach to government—instituting policies that improve outcomes for the individuals affected as well as society as a whole—is not merely consistent with today’s demands for more efficiency, lower spending, and less government: It’s the best way to answer them.