Another place to cut costs?

In 2008-9, the State of Montana spent around 9% of its budget on Corrections, which is 22% higher than than the national average. Perhaps this is an area that Governor Schweitzer could examine for cost savings? About one in nine state government employees works in corrections.

Although I’m not an expert on corrections, I find it difficult to come up with a satisfactory explanation for why this area of the state budget is so much higher than most of the nation. Are our citizens more likely to break the law? I find this to be the least convincing argument. Indeed, the crime rate in Montana is about 18% lower than the national average rate.

Are our laws more stringent, such that more of us find ourselves on the wrong side of the law? Are our citizens more likely to get caught breaking the law? Are our courts more likely to lock us away? Maybe. And in each case, we could see some political leadership to help us re-consider those laws. It could save us all money.

According to the state Department of Corrections, the most frequent offenses for which offenders are sentenced are:

Among men, drug possession, felony drunken driving, theft, burglary and sale of drugs are the most common. Drug possession, theft, forgery, drug selling and issuing bad checks are the most common among women.

Indeed, a recent Pew Center on the States report suggests that the

current prison growth is not driven primarily by a parallel increase in crime, or a corresponding surge in the population at large. Rather, it flows principally from a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through popular “three-strikes” measures and other sentencing enhancements, keeping them there longer.

Indeed, prison sentences here have become “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared.”

One in every 31 U.S. adults is currently in the corrections system, which includes jail, prison, probation and supervision, more than double the rate of a quarter century ago. In 2008, for the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars. The. U.S. has 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation. Per capita, we also have the highest rate of incarceration, joining such esteemed colleagues as the Russian Federation, Rwanda, and Cuba.

But, we might also ask if there is a more cost-efficient way to provide corrections. Nationally, direct expenditure for each of the major criminal justice functions (police, corrections, judicial) has been increasing:

National judicial costs
(source: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Recently, some U.S. states have warmed to the idea that rehabilitation outside prison can be cheaper and more effective. That Wall Street Journal article quotes Adam Gelb, a public-safety specialist, as saying that while a day in prison costs $79 on average; a day on probation costs $3.42. “States can substantially beef up supervision in the community and do it at a fraction of the cost of a prison cell,” he says. “The economy is bringing a lot of states to the table,” Gelb said, “and the research has pointed to a path for them to more public safety at less cost.” These alternatives include shortened probations, intensive supervision, streamlined parole, and more drug and DWI courts that allow low-level offenders to avoid jail through treatment and intervention programs and random testing.

How about it, Brian? Will you stand up to the police unions, corrections industry, and ‘war on drugs’ campaigners?