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Policy and Practice Briefs: Incarceration Costs

In June 2010, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C. issued a report highlighting fiscal aspects of the use of incarceration in the United States. In The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration, CEPR researchers John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta observe that the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. This high level of incarceration (2.3 million people in 2008) is hardly new to most observers of American correctional practice. More groundbreaking is the finding that “a reduction by one-half in the incarceration rate of bon-violent offenders would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year and return the U.S. to about the same incarceration rate we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards). The large majority of these savings would accrue to financially squeezed state and local governments, amounting to about one-fourth of their annual corrections budgets. As a group, state governments could save $7.6 billion, while local governments could save $7.2 billion.”

The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration compares American incarceration rates not only with those of other nations around the world, but also with those levels of incarceration at other periods in our history. The report examines the central causes of these sanctioning practices and assesses the impact of confining such a significant number of people on subsequent crime rates. Most importantly, the report quantifies the financial cost of incarceration and identifies possible fiscal savings for state and local governments.

According to the report, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration (753 per 100,000) among all 30 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Poland and Mexico, the next high incarceration countries, have rates of 224 and 209 per 100,000, approximately one-third that of the United States.  Iceland is the OECD country with the lowest rate of incarceration (44 per 100,000). The International Center for Prison Studies, based in London, reports the United States is the only OECD member among the 10 nations with the highest rates of incarceration.  Of America’s neighbors, Canada incarcerates 116 per 100,000, Mexico 209 per 100,000, and Cuba 531 per 100,000.

The CEPR report concludes that harsh sentencing policies and practices affect the size of prison populations more than crime increases. Interestingly, it also suggests that a shift in sanctioning practices could result in sizeable cost savings at all levels of government. If 700,000 prisoners were displaced or diverted to probation or parole, the report notes, the incarceration rate in the United States would fall roughly to the same level we had in 1993 (521 per 100,000, slightly less than Cuba’s current 531 per 100,000). As to how this might happen, the report stresses the importance of community corrections, “Shifting non-violent offenders from prison and jail to parole and probation will be most beneficial if these community corrections systems themselves are reformed. Current probation and parole policies often lack intermediate sanctions for minor violations.  In many cases, the only response available for technical and minor probation and parole violations is prison or jail. A system of graduated, intermediate sanctions would give probation and parole officers and the courts authority to impose punishments short of incarceration for minor violations.”

But a “system of graduated, intermediate sanctions” is not a new idea. Twenty years ago, former NIC Advisory Board member Norval Morris and Michael Tonry wrote about such a system in Between Prison and Punishment: Intermediate Punishments in a Rational Sentencing System (Oxford University Press, 1990). Wisely, they wrote of the cost implications of transforming the existing system into such a new system. On the level of individual sanctions such as community service sentences, they observed that “it is only when substantial systems of community service orders cut into jail and prison costs sufficiently to preclude the opening of new wings in jails or prisons, or ideally to preclude the perceived need to build new jails or prisons, that the financial savings are measureable and substantial.”  On a larger scale, they spoke of “the complex character of our criminal justice institutions provides bewilderingly complex problems to be solved before major new initiatives can be accomplished.” They observed that financial complexities were often dependent upon straightening out constitutional, legal, political, organizational, bureaucratic, and ideological complexities.

Morris and Tonry suggested this would be a “daunting” task. In this report, the CEPR assumes that 700,000 prisoners would avoid incarceration or lengthier stays of confinement. Mapping the achievement of such a “daunting” task is really beyond the scope of this report. But it is still useful to think about what is being suggested and what is not being said. One factor of note: Little here is being said about mental illness. The CEPR report says nothing, and one wonders what could be said in terms of removing non-violent (or even violent) mentally ill offenders from jail and prisons. Morris and Tonry suggested that programs for those with “a pathological mental condition” may “hold promise of playing an important role in a comprehensive punishment system. They offer the paradigm case of the effort to blend effective controls with effective treatment programs for two main reasons:  The prison is such an inappropriate place for such programs and there is widespread understanding in the community of the need to provide treatment for the addicted and the mentally ill.” Recognizing some historical as well as contemporary tensions,  Morris and Tony note, “Citizens may well object to a clinic for the ambulatory treatment of addicted or disturbed criminals being situated in their neighborhoods, but they tend to agree that it is proper to have such clinics somewhere.”

Posted Fri, Jan 28 2011 12:10 PM by Tracey Vessels


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