Published: March 2, 2009 , The New York Times
One in every 31 adults, or 7.3 million Americans, is in prison, on parole or probation, at a cost to the states of $47 billion in 2008, according to a new study.
Criminal correction spending is outpacing budget growth in education, transportation and public assistance, based on state and federal data. Only Medicaid spending grew faster than state corrections spending, which quadrupled in the past two decades, according to the report Monday by the Pew Center on the States, the first breakdown of spending in confinement and supervision in the past seven years.
The increases in the number of people in some form of correctional control occurred as crime rates declined by about 25 percent in the past two decades.
As states face huge budget shortfalls, prisons, which hold 1.5 million adults, are driving the spending increases.
States have shown a preference for prison spending even though it is cheaper to monitor convicts in community programs, including probation and parole, which require offenders to report to law enforcement officers. A survey of 34 states found that states spent an average of $29,000 a year on prisoners, compared with $1,250 on probationers and $2,750 on parolees. The study found that despite more spending on prisons, recidivism rates remained largely unchanged.
Pew researchers say that as states trim services like education and health care, prison budgets are growing. Those priorities are misguided, the study says.
“States are looking to make cuts that will have long-term harmful effects,” said Sue Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. “Corrections is one area they can cut and still have good or better outcomes than what they are doing now.”
Brian Walsh, a senior research fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, agreed that focusing on probation and parole could reduce recidivism and keep crime rates low in the long run. But Mr. Walsh said tougher penalties for crimes had driven the crime rate down in the first place.
“The reality is that one of the reasons crime rates are so low is because we changed our federal and state systems in the past two decades to make sure that people who commit crimes, especially violent crimes, actually have to serve significant sentences,” he said.
Over all, two-thirds of offenders, or about 5.1 million people in 2008, were on probation or parole. The study found that states were not increasing their spending for community supervision in proportion to their growing caseloads. About $9 out of $10 spent on corrections goes to prison financing (that includes money spent to house 780,000 people in local jails).
One in 11 African-Americans, or 9.2 percent, are under correctional control, compared with one in 27 Latinos (3.7 percent) and one in 45 whites (2.2 percent). Only one out of 89 women is behind bars or monitored, compared with one out of 18 men.
Georgia had 1 in 13 adults under some form of punishment; Idaho, 1 in 18; the District of Columbia, 1 in 21; Texas, 1 in 22; Massachusetts, 1 in 24; and Ohio, 1 in 25.
Peter Greenwood, the executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Evidence Based Practice, a group that favors rehabilitative approaches, said states started spending more on prisons in the 1980s during the last big crime wave.
“Basically, when we made these investments, public safety and crime was the No. 1 concern of voters, so politicians were passing all kinds of laws to increase sentences,” Mr. Greenwood said.
President Bill Clinton signed legislation to increase federal sentences, he said.
“Now, crime is down,” Mr. Greenwood said, “but we’re living with that legacy: the bricks and mortar and the politicians who feel like they have to talk tough every time they talk about crime.”
Mr. Greenwood said prisons and jails, along with their powerful prison guard unions, service contracts, and high-profile sheriffs and police chiefs, were in a much better position to protect their interests than were parole and probation officers.
“Traditionally, probation and parole is at the bottom of the totem pole,” he said. “They’re just happy every time they don’t lose a third of their budget.”