Saturday, June 5, 2010

What Would You Pay to be Free From Crime?

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, some southern states, traditionally known for their tough law and order vigor, are looking for ways to balance shrinking state budgets by reducing prison population. Many states face the same difficult decision. Regardless of the choice, many people are going to suffer. The question is how will they suffer?

Here, according to the Journal Constitution, is what some states are doing:

Mississippi lawmakers decided in 2008 to cut prison costs by allowing all nonviolent offenders to be considered for parole after serving 25 percent of a sentence instead of 85 percent.

Texas began a bipartisan effort in 2007 that avoided $2 billion in costs to build and operate new prisons by spending $241 million on alternatives: stepped-up probation and parole programs, new halfway houses and specialty courts devoted to offenders with drug issues and mental health problems.

North Carolina announced in April a bipartisan initiative to develop a new research-driven approach to public safety that is expected to reduce prison costs by investing in alternatives that are more effective.

South Carolina’s Legislature last week approved a landmark sentencing reform package designed to save the state $400 million over the next five years by reducing incarceration of nonviolent offenders and more closely supervising released inmates to reduce recidivism.

Georgia, according to James E. Donald, a member of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, began looking for alternatives for nonviolent prisoners. The state is considering a movement to create a state network of “day reporting centers,” a community-based option for errant probationers who pose little threat but who would otherwise take up prison space.

According to the Journal Constitution, plenty of states beyond the South — traditionally the leading tough-on-crime region — are also adjusting their approach to punishment.

My Take

For many states it is a Hobson's choice. How many reductions in child care, education or health care are citizens willing to put up with to fund jails and prisons. As the Journal Constitution recently pointed out in Georgia, "Lawmakers will likely face a difficult choice in the 2011 session: Opt for more teacher layoffs, higher college tuition bills and less money for transportation, or make changes to lower Georgia’s prison population."

However, crime rates are at historic lows. According to the FBI, violent crime fell by 5.5-percent in 2009. All four violent crime offenses—murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—declined nationwide in 2009 when compared with 2008 data. Robbery dropped 8.1 percent, murder decreased 7.2 percent, aggravated assault declined 4.2 percent, and forcible rape decreased 3.1 percent. Property crimes fell by 4.9 during the same period.

Declining crime has been a trend in this country for the last decade. How much can be attributed to record incarceration rates? One in every 100 Americans is behind bars. While prisons and jails have recently decreased in size, the size of prisons have increased at least five-fold since 1985.

Will a decrease in prison population cause increased crime? There is no question that incarceration has had an impact on crime. A study by economist Steven Levitt found filling prisons reduces crime.

The question is, would states be looking for alternatives to incarceration if the economy had not turned sour and state revenues dried up? If the answer is no, then we must conclude that public safety is being compromised to balance state and local budgets.

The cost of an up-tick in robbery or rape or murder may not be that significant to the state or federal government. What is the cost to the victim? The 5.5-percent reduction in violent crime in 2009 represents more than just some numbers on a statistician's spreadsheet--those numbers represent thousands and thousands of men, woman and children who were not victims. Those statistics represent the growing number of Americans who were not robbed, beaten, raped and murdered.

What are you willing to pay in taxes, or not receive in government services, to be one of the unknown nonvictims of violent crime?

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