Monday, May 24, 2010

Dollars and Sense (or the lack thereof) in Corrections

Two interesting articles today worth your time. Both address the financial burden of "get tough" laws from the 1990's on the states of California and Georgia.

The Billion Dollar Burden:

Georgia taxpayers spend $1 billion a year locking up so many criminal offenders that the state has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. When it comes to overall criminal punishment, no state outdoes Georgia.

One in 13 Georgians is behind bars, on probation or on parole, according to the Pew Center on the States. That’s the highest rate of correctional control in the nation and more than the double the national average: 1 in 31.
Though the most recent state cuts in corrections targeted either personnel or alternatives to incarceration, the bottom line is that the bottom has been reached: according to the article, with nothing left to cut, either prison doors will have to be opened, or a radical re-tooling of sentencing will have to be addressed by state legislators. And neither, of course, is politically palatable.

Out in California, a major re-thinking of its disastrous Three Strikes law is underway, but not among the political set.
California’s repeat-offender law is unique in this stringency. Twenty-five other states have passed three-strikes laws, but only California punishes minor crimes with the penalty of a life sentence. About 3,700 prisoners in the state are serving life for a third strike that was neither iolent nor serious, according to the legal definition. That’s more than 40 percent of the total third-strike population of about 8,500. Technically, these offenders are eligible for parole after 20 years, but at the moment, the state parole board rarely releases any prisoner early.

Now California is in the midst of fiscal calamity. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been a judge in California, recently bemoaned state sentencing and spending on prisons. In an address at Pepperdine University, he said that “the three-strikes law sponsor is the correctional officers’ union, and that is sick!” And yet Schwarzenegger has vowed not to touch the law. Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, the leading Republican and Democratic contenders to succeed him in November, are just as unbending.
Because the recession seems to have bottomed out, and state revenues are on the upswing both in California and in Georgia, I doubt politicians in either state will actually have to address the brain-dead policies of the 1990's, at least from a financial crisis point of view (as I've previously noted, the privatization of corrections is booming). This would be a shame, since these laws should still get the scrutiny (and the axe) they deserve.

However, crime and punishment are third rails in politics, untouchable and unthinkable, even in a financial crisis. No one gets elected or re-elected running on "I'm for fiscal and judicial sanity," and I doubt the "Great Recession" will change that.

Meanwhile, most people understand that cutting education over corrections is idiotic and self-defeating. But in the politics of "stupid is as stupid does," it's the exact opposite: cut education to the bone and leave the correctional industry untouched. Why?

Because the more you cut education, and the more you increase class size, the more criminals are being produced for the future. You can't revisit sentencing laws when you are busy producing a new generation of criminals via education cuts. Is it a coincidence that states near the bottom in education have the highest proportion of their citizens under correctional control?

Welcome to the beast that is the Correctional-Industrial-Complex.

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