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?

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His Lordship

The most important thing I achieved today was catching more fish than the director of FWP, ” said Gov’nur Schweitzer.

Last Friday, he was one of the first legal people to float through the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.   That’s right – the river is ready for floating, and by all accounts, the fishing is just dandy!

There’s some nice little fishing holes in here,” noted Joe Maurier, acting director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Woohoo! Let’s go!

But, wait.   Don’t launch your boats just yet.  It ain’t legal for you.   YOU are gonna have to wait at least another year.

Unless you’re a friend of his Lordship.   In which case, he’ll grant you a special exemption and you can float on down at your leisure.   There won’t be any yahoos on their inner tubes and there’s won’t be any noisy speed boats heading the opposite direction.   This little stretch of river is only for the rich and powerful!

It was the sort of thing that happened in England all the time – if you wanted to hunt on someone’s land you had to be invited to the annual hunting party, if you wanted to fish a stretch of river you had to be a member of the local club, and if you were caught on someone’s property picking berries or mushrooms you could expect to be shot.   The royal elite controlled the land and the poor had no rights of access.   And you can be sure the lords and ladies didn’t want to share it with you.

Of course, the thing is, over here every man, woman, (and dog?) is treated equal.   We have public lands that are owned by all of us, paid for by all of us, and part of our common heritage and liberty.   We’re proud of our rivers here in Montana and we don’t much like the government telling us where we can and can’t go.  Its part of our freedom to wander at will, chasing those elusive cutthroats and moseying on through the riffles.

So, why the heck did Governor Schweitzer choose July 4th weekend to remind us that all citizens are created equal… but that some are more equal than others?   Because he can.

Boy Howdy-Doody

While the rest of the country seemed dumbstruck in the verbal presence of our Gov’, Brian Schweitzer, I know I’m not the only Montanan who just rolled his eyes when they saw him hooping and hollering at the Democratic Convention.   We’ve seen this hayseed put on his bolo tie before, and we’re not impressed by his fourth grade grammar.

Sadly, the rest of the country now views us as a little bit slow, a little bit tawdry, and a whole lot of hick. That’s not the Montana image I rally around. We may be pragmatic, down-to-earth, and all know a little bit more about where our food comes from. But, we’re not, and Schweitzer’s not, dumb.  He’s got a Masters degree (from that other university in Montana), lots of street smart, and just a bit of worldy experience (time in the middle east, trade arrangements and the like). Many of us are well educated, both in the school of hard knocks and in the hallowed halls of academia.  We may not be folk of many words, but that’s just ‘cos we’re listening and cogitating.

I’ve got to say I preferred the populist Schweitzer better. The man of the street who visited every county in the state, most of them more than once. The man who held listening sessions in every town, small and large. Today, by contrast, we get robo-calls of his voice powered by some out-of-state telemarketer.

Now, I just feel had. I don’t know what he stands for any longer, other than a grandstanding glamor pony. He seems more interested in the national stage than the local one where he did so well.  And I just don’t see the appeal being a longplayer once the novelty wears off.  And it will.