Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Prisons Punitive for Ohio Taxpayers

Cleveland Plain-Dealer
November 9, 2009

Last year, America passed a dubious threshold. The Pew Center on the States reported that 1 in every 100 adults in the U.S. are in jail or prison. This summer, the Pew Center expanded its research into probation and parole. Their findings were even more startling. One in 45 Americans are under some form of community supervision. When you combine the probation and parole figures with the number of inmates in prisons and jails, nearly 1 in 31 are under some form of corrections control.

The soaring incarceration and supervision rates should not come as a surprise. In little more than 20 years the national prison population has nearly tripled from roughly 600,000 in 1987 to 1.6 million in 2007. Since 1983, the number of people on probation or parole has gone from 1.6 million to more than 5 million.

There is evidence that locking up more offenders, for longer periods of time has had some impact on declining crime rates. Steven D. Levitt, in his book, Freakonomics, suggested “imprisonment is certainly one of the key answers (to falling crime rates). It accounts for roughly one-third of the drop in crime.”
Is the “lock’em up” mentality worth the cost?
With expanding prison populations come ever-growing corrections budgets. As states and local governments face the worst recession in history, corrections expenditures are under increasing scrutiny.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are two of only a handful of states that have a prison population exceeding 50,000. With the average daily cost of housing an inmate at about $80 a day, the costs of incarceration are staggering. In fiscal year 2008, Ohio spent $1.76 billion on corrections and Pennsylvania spent $1.66 billion.

Pennsylvania has been without a budget for more than two months. The stalemate has left counties, municipalities, school districts and social service agencies without funding. The gap between GOP and Democratic leaders is about $1 billion. However, the legislature has approved the construction of four new prisons at a cost of approximately $200 million apiece. That price tag may be optimistic. That state has just rejected all bids for the newest facility at SCI Benner Township. The bids came in unacceptably high.

Ohio passed a budget in July that cut funding for colleges and universities by $170 million and public libraries by $84 million. Yet, Ohio has spent nearly a billion dollars to build 23 prisons since 1987. There is no end in sight. According to Lia Gormsen, writing in the Corrections Compendium, Ohio has passed 40 bills that enhance criminal penalties in the last two years. The new “tough on crime” legislation has further burdened a prison system that is 133-percent above capacity.

Recently, the Southern Ohio Correction Facility, sight of a deadly riot 16 years ago, announced its intention to vacate six of eight guard towers to cut costs. The Columbus Dispatch reported that the guards in each tower are among the few in prison who are armed. The union representing the corrections officers said they are “the last line of defense between the inmates and the community.”

There is research suggesting that there are effective ways to deal with prison crowding. A growing body of research exists regarding assessing risk. Lengthy sentences and supervision resources should be geared toward high risk offenders, while eliminating onerous sentences for low risk, non-violent offenders.

Long sentences for some inmates are actually counter-productive. A recent study of the Michigan corrections system, by the Citizens Alliance for Prisons and Public Spending, found that keeping inmates behind bars for long periods does little for reducing crime.

The way we approach law enforcement and supervision can also have an impact on incarceration rates. Crime does not occur in equal proportion through-out a community. Therefore, law enforcement and supervision resources should not be dispersed equally across the entire community. Focusing resources on “hot spots” at “hot times” can enhance law enforcement and supervision as well as reduce crime and cut-down on recidivism.

Solving the prison largesse will take more than rhetoric. As long as lawmakers continue to posture for the tough on crime vote and ignore the “smart on crime” evidence, prisons will continue to grow and taxpayers will continue to flip the bill.

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