WINTER 2015 CONFERENCE

The Price of Prisons

 

Christian Henrichson

Director
Cost Benefit Unit
Vera Institute of Justice

Christian Henrichson reported to the Forum that since 1986, state prison populations in America have increased 171%, while costs have gone up 141% ($ adjusted for inflation). He noted that prison costs, as a share of total general-fund spending, have increased  by 44%. “Today, corrections represent 6.9% ($46 billion) of states’ total general fund spending ($662 billion) and 20% of state general fund spending other than Medicaid, public assistance, and education ($230 billion),” he said.

Since 1986, state prison populations in the U.S. have increased 171%, while costs have gone up  141%. Prison costs, as a share of total general fund spending, have increased by 44%.

Rising Costs of Prisons

Mr. Henrichson pointed out that state reports sometimes fail to capture the entire pricetag for prisons because they only capture expenditures by state corrections agencies, including contributions for pension and retiree healthcare benefits, fringe benefits and payroll taxes, capital costs, legal judgments and claims and statewide administrative costs. Additional prison costs are borne by other state agencies such as hospital care for inmates and educational and job training programs. In addition, the cost of underfunded contributions for corrections employees’ pension and retiree healthcare plans must also be included in a comprehensive accounting of prison costs, Mr. Henrichson reminded the Forum.

In 2010, the average cost per inmate was $31,286 for a total cost of $38.9 billion, among the 40 states that responded to the Vera Institute of Justice’s survey on prison costs. Respondents reported that 13.9% of total costs were borne outside the corrections budget and in some states, this could be as high as 34%.

Costs Outside Corrections Budgets
(40 states, $ in millions)

Opportunities for Savings

Mr. Henrichson told the Forum about South Carolina’s approach to cutting corrections costs. The state passed the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act (S. 1154) in 2010, with provisions to ensure there is prison space for high-risk, violent offenders, while reducing recidivism, providing fair and effective sentencing options, employing evidence-based practices and improving public safety. The Act concentrates detention resources on high-risk and violent offenders, strengthens probation and parole supervision, improves parole release decision-making and establishes ongoing oversight.

To improve the rate of successful reintegration into communities when jailed offenders return home, the Act requires supervision for those leaving prison and provides incentives for them to stay crime-free and drug-free. A particularly important provision of the Act is the requirement to calculate the costs avoided by reducing the parole revocation rate.

The provisions of South Carolina’s Senate Act 1154 have been successful in reducing recidivism and lessening costs. Parole revocations have been cut in half from 2010 to 2014, allowing an equal number of prison bed-years to be avoided.  The inmate count dropped from 24,000 to 21,250, representing a $18.7 million cost avoidance from fiscal year 2011 to 2014.

Mr. Henrichson emphasized that different states have different marginal costs per inmate. For example, South Carolina’s $3,632 versus New York’s $18,706 per inmate provides even greater opportunities for marginal cost savings.

Larger inmate reductions lead to greater opportunities to reduce costs by closing a prison, Mr. Henrichson pointed out, noting that the prison population in New York has declined from 71,500 in 1999 to 53,300 in 2014. As a result, New York closed three jails that housed 770 inmates for an annual savings of $36 million ($47,000 per inmate).

Discussion

Sen. Sandy Pappas (MN): Minnesota has the second lowest incarceration rate among the states. What processes and procedures help bring down the incarceration rate? In my state, fiscal responsibility lies with the Finance Committee, so any floor amendment that would increase prison beds must go through the Finance Committee.

Mr. Henrichson: Eliminating mandatory minimum and long sentences are the key changes to reduce the incarceration rate.

Sen. Tom Alexander (SC): South Carolina was able to make sweeping Criminal Justice changes because our people realized that rising prison costs were not sustainable. A Committee was convened that was led by experts with bipartisan support and the inclusion of law enforcement. They needed to know that our recommendations would not be soft on crime. We included victims and advocates. Everyone endorsed the Omnibus Bill. We have seen nothing negative come out of these changes. There has been no increase in crime and no risk to public safety, and our data are available to support reform in other states.

Sen. Phil Berger (NC): North Carolina's Justice Reinvestment Act (2011), a data-driven bipartisan approach to criminal justice policy, made substantial changes to the law of sentencing and corrections. As a result of this legislation, the state’s prison population has declined by more than 3,000 inmates, 10 state jails have closed, probation revocations are down dramatically, all felons released from prison are receiving 9 or 12 months of supervision and 175 new probation officers were hired.

Mr. Henrichson: Delaware and Connecticut also have task forces that bring all the stakeholders together to discuss what needs to be done to reform the states’ criminal justice systems. Every state needs to dig deeper and enact more sweeping reforms for the tide to turn.

Sen. Hanna Gallo (RI): Early education is essential as a preventive measure; we need literacy specialists to ensure that children can read by third grade, and we have to encourage children to stay in school so they can avoid situations that lead to jail.

Sen. Tom Apodaca (NC): The data show that you can project the number of prison beds a state will need based on how many children are not reading by third grade. Based on this insight, we added Reading Specialists to the schools and require that all children are reading by third grade.

Since 1986, state prison populations in the U.S. have increased 171%, while costs have gone up  141%. Prison costs, as a share of total general fund spending, have increased by 44%.

South Carolina’s Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act (S. 1154) of 2010 has reduced both recidivism and costs. It concentrates detention resources on high-risk and violent offenders, strengthens probation and parole supervision, improves parole release decision-making and establishes ongoing oversight.

Sen. Sandy Pappas (MN)

Sen. Tom Alexander (SC)

Sen. Phil Berger (NC)

Sen. Hanna Gallo (RI)

Sen. Tom Apodaca (NC)

Criminal and Social Justice

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