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Report: Total State Prison Costs at Least $5.4 Billion Over Budget Nationwide

For decades, tough-on-crime rhetoric has convinced taxpayers to finance ballooning prison budgets with no questions asked. But the price tag of mass incarceration has so grossly surpassed state corrections budgets that legislators across the country have become adept at paying prison-related costs from other sources, thereby making their prison budgets seem smaller than they actually are.

A report from the Vera Institute of Justice illuminates this problem by revealing that states pay, on average, 14% more for prison-related expenses than reflected by corrections budgets. In 40 states surveyed by Vera researchers, total prison costs for fiscal year 2010 were $38.8 billion – $5.4 billion higher than the states’ collective prison budgets.

“States’ corrections spending – including prisons, as well as probation and parole – has nearly quadrupled in the past two decades,” according to the Vera report. Those figures make incarceration the fastest-growing budget item on the state level after Medicaid.

Financial resources that could be used for K-12 education, health care, affordable housing and other community services instead find their way into prison coffers to pay for guards’ pension plans, fringe benefits and retiree health plans, as well as other corrections costs.
“As states continue to deal with serious budget constraints, it’s critical that policy makers, corrections officials, taxpayers and legislators know exactly what their prisons cost,” noted Vera Institute director Michael Jacobson. “Many states are moving toward reserving incarceration for the most dangerous people and using proven strategies to improve public safety at a lower cost.”

Funded by the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, Vera researchers calculated the total cost of prison operations by analyzing publicly available data and soliciting information from all 50 state corrections departments in August 2011. Ultimately, 40 states agreed to participate in the survey.

Connecticut topped the participating states by spending 34% more on its prisons than reflected in its corrections budget, which cost taxpayers an additional $316,169 in FY 2010. Five other states – Illinois, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas – spent between 20% and 32.5% more on prisons than their corrections budgets.

Another 18 states, including California, were between 5% and 19.9% over budget; California’s externalized prison costs amounted to over $969,000. Total prison expenses exceeded corrections budgets by less than 5% in sixteen other states, with Arizona’s total costs (just over $1 billion) coming in at less than 1% over budget – the lowest of any of the survey respondents.

The Vera report found that 11 types of prison costs are not usually included in states’ corrections budgets. Some costs, including employee benefits and taxes, prison construction and renovation, and contracts with private prison companies, are “budgeted centrally for administrative purposes.” In many states, a portion of the costs for prisoner hospital care and prisoner education/vocational training are funded through other state agencies. And in 21 states, pensions for prison personnel are simply underfunded, as are retiree health care benefits in 30 states.

Among the states that participated in the survey – representing 1.2 million of the nation’s 1.4 million state prisoners – Vera found that the total annual per-prisoner cost to taxpayers averaged $31,166, ranging from $14,603 per year in Kentucky to $60,076 per year in New York.

The report’s authors contend that the survey provides an “apples to apples comparison of state prison costs because it standardizes the measure and counts the comprehensive costs to taxpayers in every state.” The point is an important one because policy makers are apt to compare states’ per-prisoner spending, and push for lowering costs in their own states accordingly.

Vera warned, however, that per-prisoner costs “do not measure how effective spending is. They merely measure spending itself.” Lowering per-prisoner costs “may invite poorer outcomes in terms of safety and recidivism.”

To cut costs while maintaining public safety, the Vera report recommended that policy makers trying to trim budgets look to states like Kentucky, Mississippi, Kansas and Hawaii for successful strategies.

In 2007, for example, Kansas and Texas employed a “justice reinvestment” initiative that reduced prison costs and reinvested part of the resulting savings into decreasing recidivism. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.18]. In 2008, Mississippi took the drastic but commendable step of reducing the percentage of sentences that nonviolent offenders must serve before parole eligibility from 85% to 25%.

Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) punishes parolees and probationers who fail drug tests or commit technical violations with a “swift and certain” short stint in jail rather than a trip back to prison, reducing new arrests and positive drug screens by 50%. And in 2011, Kentucky revised its sentencing laws for nonviolent offenses to distinguish between serious and non-serious crimes, including eliminating some sentence enhancements for subsequent drug possession offenses.

“Many of these reforms require some upfront investment, but present the greatest opportunities for budget savings over the long run while also enhancing public safety,” stated Peggy McGarry, Director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “Knowing the taxpayer cost of any public safety option is important – especially now. But it is just as important to examine and weigh those costs against the benefits they promise to deliver.”

Source: “The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers,” Vera Institute of Justice (January 2012)

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