Prison reform, including reforms mandated by the judiciary, is an issue that everyone but shareholders in private prison companies thinks is a positive development, for a number of reasons. Even former advocates of mass incarceration now generally agree that the so-called War on Drugs, with its attendant soaring arrest and incarceration rates, has resulted in increased red ink in government budgets. But what about the unintended consequences? What about the hollowing-out of inner city neighborhoods and the shattering of families in many impoverished communities?
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 that prison overcrowding in California constituted cruel and unusual punishment, sparking a court-ordered reduction in that state’s prison population [see: PLN, July 2011, p.1], some academics began to study the correlation between increased corrections spending and reduced spending on social services.
Professor Richard Boylan of Rice University in Houston, Texas, an expert on the economics of prison reform, has analyzed the corrections industry from an economic rather than social policy standpoint and has developed some conclusions that deserve serious consideration.
Professor Boylan notes that “State prison crowding is a major problem in the corrections system, and since as early as the 1970s U.S. federal courts have issued court orders condemning states. The court rulings have been effective in increasing states’ spending on corrections, but at what cost?”
Boylan found that states that were court-ordered to improve prison conditions spent almost 30% more per prisoner, which resulted in a 20% drop in prisoner mortality rates, a 12% decrease in prisoners per capita and “all-around better prison living conditions.” It was clear that as prisoners became more expensive for court-supervised states to maintain, state officials found ways to cut incarceration rates to more manageable levels without increasing crime rates.
However, an unintended consequence of these increased corrections expenditures generally came at the expense of “welfare aid and social programs – and permanently so. Given the states’ balanced budget requirements, legislatures are forced to increase taxes or cut spending in other programs.” This resulted in a 22% cut in state welfare spending. Interestingly, once those same states were released from court supervision, there was no significant change in how they spent funds on either corrections or social programs.
Professor Boylan suggests that as their prison populations decline, states should reexamine the impact of reduced spending on education and social welfare services, as increased funding in those areas would intuitively lead to additional decreases in the crime rate. In other words, he recommends that states consider the unintended consequences of prison reform and increased spending on corrections, and make appropriate adjustments to social welfare expenditures.
It would have been helpful had similar research been conducted in the 1980s to avoid the corrosive and costly effects of the exploding incarceration rate on American society. While the combined U.S. prison and jail population has leveled off at around 2.2 million, that is still twice the number of prisoners there were in 1990.
The vast increase in our nation’s prison population was spurred by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton and strongly supported by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. The former president has since acknowledged the devastating impact of that legislation, stating at the July 2015 annual meeting of the NAACP, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse.”
“In that bill, there were longer sentences. And most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend, and that was overdone. We were wrong about that,” Clinton added. “The good news is we had the biggest drop in crime in history. The bad news is we had a lot people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
While such an admission is welcome, it does not undo two decades’ worth of punitive sentencing and excessively long prison terms that have affected hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families at enormous cost, both fiscally and socially.
Sources: CNN, www.wamc.org
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