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It Costs Too Much and It Does Not Work

It Costs Too Much And It Does Not Work

By Ed Mead

We need to prove it!

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), during the period between the end of 1988 and the end of 1989, there was a 12.1 percent increase in the number of state and federal convicts confined in the U.S. And from 1980 until the end of 1989 there was an overall increase of 113 percent people behind bars.

Are the streets any safer as a result or locking up all these poor people? Not really. According to another BJS report, its National Crime Survey, during that same period robbery increased by 21 percent. Seattle's murder rate for last year rose by a whopping 48 percent! With figures like these one could almost argue that crime increases in direct proportion to the number of people locked up.

The only point we are trying to make is that we cannot build our way out of the crime problem. Since 1983 the state of New York spent $3.7 billion for new prison capacity. Today they are starting to look for alternatives. Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, said "[t]he dramatic increase in the number of people locked up on New York...has already cost the state billions in prison construction and operating expenses. This approach has gotten us nowhere." Gangi said. "Statewide crime rates have gone up, not down. We cannot afford to continue to waste expensive prison space on people who can be handled in other ways.

Will Washington state learn the lessons of New York without first having to squander billions of dollars of taxpayer money? The answer turns in part on the ability of prisoners and their supporters to effectively communicate to the public the expensive and misdirected policies adopted by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the state legislature. At present they are blindly following the failed practices of New York and other states who have tried to "build" their way out of the problem of violent crime.

One starting point, and the task some group of outsiders and/or prisoners must quickly undertake, is to get an exact figure of the yearly cost of housing a person in prison. According to the June issue of the Washington State Corrections Employees Association News, DOC boss Chase Riveland predicts the state's prison population will double over the next five years.

"Our operating budget," said Riveland, "currently at $490 million, will shoot to $1.3 billion by 1995."

The $490 million biennium operating budget, when cut in half (for a one year budget) and divided by the number of adult prisoners (some 8,000 people) comes to an amount of nearly $40,000 per year for every man and woman in prison. But this figure is not an accurate one.

The figure does not include prison costs contained in other DOC budgets or the budgets of other state agencies for such services as payroll administration, accounting, employee benefits, education programs, legal services, medical expenses, transportation, capital improvements, facility construction, planning, etc.

We need an outside group and prisoners to study the applicable data and obtain the actual cost of confinement. The DOC's method of calculating the annual cost of confinement is to merely take the budget of a specific institution and to divide it by the prisoners housed there, a method that does not include such costs as maintaining a bloated corrections bureaucracy in Olympia.

Please give some thought to doing serious work toward obtaining accurate information not only on the annual cost of incarceration, but also on gathering meaningful statewide crime figures. Armed with the proper information, the job of communicating will be far easier. It will take utilizing the state's public disclosure laws and possibly litigation to pry the information from the hands of officials, but it can be done if we have the help of our loved ones.

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