...But There's No Mistake About Exploding Jail Costs

The crime crisis may be somewhat exaggerated but not the crisis in spending on prisons and jails. According to economist Steven Gold of the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York in Albany, state and local expenditures on correctional systems exploded by 229%, to $21.2 billion, from 1980 to 1989. By one estimate, each addition to the inmate population, which rose by 80,000 in fiscal 1990 alone, costs the states some $25,000 a year.

Behind this spending surge lies a new get-tough attitude on the part of state legislators aimed at greater certainty of incarceration and longer sentences. Some 35% of all felony convictions in California now lead to prison terms, for example, compared with 15% in 1975.

Has getting tough reduced the incidence of violent crime? The evidence is mixed, though criminals are obviously deterred from misbehaving while doing time. What is clear, however, is that the trend toward greater incarceration is running into a fiscal stone wall. Convictions, many based on drug-related offenses, are rising faster than prison cells, and some 40 states are now under court orders to correct overcrowding and inadequate conditions.

One promising development is the willingness of many hard-pressed states to examine alternatives to traditional incarceration for nonviolent criminals. These include pretrial release, fines, halfway houses, job training, community service, drug treatment, and work release. Since the majority of U. S. prisoners are not violent offenders, such reforms could well reduce costs without endangering the public, and advocates say they could reduce the incidence of crime as well.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.