Wednesday, July 14, 2010

One Nation Behind Bars

While interstate highways characterized public works programs in the 1950s, prison building has come to define public works programs in the late twentieth century, despite the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned a D grade to the nation’s infrastructure and estimated that it would take $2.2 trillion to bring it into a state of good repair.

For almost a century the nation's incarceration rate remained relatively stable. The US locked up approximately 100 for every 100,000 residents. But in 1972, the US imprisonment rate began to  climb to the point that by the end of the twentieth century,  500 for every 100,000 residents (700 for every 100,000 in some southern states) were behind bars.  By 2008, one out of every 100 residents - one out of 71 in Texas - called prison, home.  However, rates of reincarceration remain high and, by some measures, have actually worsened despite the exponential rise in spending.  Nationwide, state expenditures on corrections has risen faster from 1988 to 2008 than spending on nearly any other state budget item, increasing from about $12 billion to $52 billion a year.

Politics, not an increase in crime or population, is the reason our nation can't build prisons fast enough. Law and order conservatives created catchy slogans and severe statutes like, "zero tolerance" to "truth in sentencing" to "mandatory minimums" to "three-strikes" to "weed and seed".  The result:  crowded prisons with non-violent offenders, and no alternative to reducing ballooning prison budgets at a time when state budgets.
"The United States currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world. The U.S. incarceration rate – 753 per 100,000 people in 2008 – is now about 240 percent higher than it was in 1980.

We calculate that a reduction by one-half in the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year and return the U.S. to about the same incarceration rate we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards). The large majority of these savings would accrue to financially squeezed state and local governments, amounting to about one-fourth of their annual corrections budgets. As a group, state governments could save $7.6 billion, while local governments could save $7.2 billion.


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