Through the 1980s and 1990s, spending in for criminal justice –
and especially for prisons – has increased dramatically. While punishing
criminals and ensuring public safety are important, the expenditures far surpass
inflation and bear no relationship to crime rates in any state. Little
accountability or oversight has gone with these vast sums of money to ensure
that taxpayers are getting good value for their hard-earned money. A recent
report by the Comptroller of Public Accounts for Texas is extremely skeptical
that the enormous sums of money poured into the criminal justice and the
aggressive prison expansion have made that state any safer. The striking
conclusion of this political and fiscal conservative is:
"despite the need for real solutions, public debate over crime in
Texas revolves around hollow calls for the state to become ‘tougher’. In
fact, this is a call for the status quo – for more of the same, only more
so. It is a call for a continuing cycle of cynical quick fixes and stop-gap
measures, for costly prison construction that cannot keep pace with the
demand for new prison space – for a constant drain on state and local
treasuries that makes Texas taxpayers poorer, not safer" (emphasis
Most states have not performed such an audit, but they should. Many of the findings
from Texas apply elsewhere and should at least be considered fully before any state embarks on another round of costly prison building . For
more information, see What Every
American Should Know About the Criminal Justice System
How much longer can this
prison buildup continue? What will be the social and
financial cost of continuing the incarceration binge?
At the present time, the Michigan Department of Corrections budget represents 16% of
the total state budget (not including the proposed spending). This share is up
from 9% in 1990 and 3% in 1978. This pattern is similar in many other states.
Michigan DOC is now the largest expenditure of the
general fund, which means Michigan spends more on prisons than on the state
university system. The proposed new prison construction represent not just a
large one time expenditure, but an expensive ongoing commitment for operations.
Indeed, a report by the House Fiscal Agency and the Senate Fiscal Agency noted
that the operating budget over the useful life of the prison will "cost the
state nearly 60 times the facility’s initial construction cost". New
construction thus represents the tip of a large financial iceberg that will be
added to the largest state bureaucracy.
It already takes the contributions of three average Michigan taxpayers to
support one inmate, and prison construction locks more taxpayers into funding
the DOC. Because citizens have spoken in intense opposition to further tax
increases, money spent to enlarge the state’s behemoth collection of prisons
has what economists call an opportunity cost: money spent here cannot fund other
programs. Some trade-offs are inevitable, but increasingly the DOC budget is
eroding money for schools, education, drug and alcohol treatment, and a host of
programs that seek to create law abiding citizens rather than simply punish them
after a criminal act. One criminologist likens this tactic to "mopping the
water off the floor while we let the tub overflow. Mopping harder may make some
difference in the level of the flood. It does not, however, do anything about
the open faucet."
Spending more money on prisons to house criminals rather than on social
programs to prevent crime is short-sighted; it is a strategy that is not
sustainable in the long run and an expensive way to threaten the public safety
of the state.
Further, the ‘imprisonment binge’ across the United States and in
Michigan has had a disproportionately high impact on the young in African
American communities. Representation of African Americans in prison is much
higher than would be expected from their prevalence in the general population or
their officially recorded participation in street crime. Currie notes that
"nationally, there are twice as many black men in state and federal prison
today as there were men of all races twenty years ago." The high number of
young men in prison removes a potential wage earner from a family and disrupts
the formation of stable families. The period of incarceration does little to
promote cooperative and compassionate behavior, nor does it significantly
enhance skills that will expand legitimate employment opportunities available
when inmates are released. Racial discrimination in employment combined with a
reluctance to hire ex-convicts permanently marginalizes many minority youth from
legitimate society and makes a return to crime more likely.
The net effect of this whole process is to reinforce in whites the
stereotypes of African American youth as inherently criminal and unemployable,
when these characteristics are produced by social policies. The high rates of
imprisonment and marginalization contribute to frustration, racial tension and
hostility in the minority community. Some of this sentiment is captured in the
title of Jerome Miller’s book Search and Destroy: African American Males in
the Criminal Justice System. Governor Engler should release a projected
racial breakdown of the inmates who will be filling the new cells, so citizens
can see if the new construction will add further to minority over-representation
and thus exacerbate existing racial problems.
Can privatization of prisons and prison services
help save money?
The building and operating of prisons by private, for-profit corporations
promised great savings that have not been realized in practice. The often
marginal savings (less than 5%) occur largely from construction and guard jobs
that are non-union, and have lower wages and fewer benefits than similar jobs
created by the state. Private prisons offer little savings, while the
introduction of substantial venture capital and a profit motive can distort the
goals of justice and public safety. The duty of the corporation is to its far
flung shareholders rather than the needs of Michigan taxpayers. Corporate
strategies for profit may conflict with the best interests of citizens by
importing criminals to get high occupancy rates. One critical report suggested
that "prison privatization creates incentives to grow the prison
population, pushing up long term prison costs."
Privatization creates a
powerful vested interest in having more prisons. It creates the equivalent of a
military-industrial complex with a profit motive in selling mops and financial
stake in making sure state policy does nothing about the tub overflowing.
Problems arise over accountability and control, so the small financial
savings with private prisons carry other large costs. One prison in Ohio, for
example, run by the Correctional Corporation of America was built for 1,500
inmates but had 1,700 because they imported inmates from Washington DC. The
facility had 13 stabbings and two fatalities during its first year of operation,
which prompted Ohio to pass a bill so state representatives could inspect the
private prisons. But the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee and
representatives of the state guards’ union were refused admittance for an
inspection. "Here we were holding copy of the Ohio code and they were
talking about their corporate policy was more important than the law," said
State Representative Mallory (a member of the Committee).
Why are prisons ineffective in reducing crime?
Many people who violate the law deserve to be put in prison because of the
harm they have done to others, and during that period they will not be
committing crimes against free citizens. But the crime prevention benefits of
incarceration are oversold because they are based on unreasonably high averages
of the number of crimes an ‘average’ criminal commits; the economic benefits
of incarceration are likewise oversold based on inflated estimates of the cost
of an ‘average’ crime. Indeed, since the early 1970s, both the U.S. and
Michigan have embarked on an imprisonment binge: Michigan went from
incarcerating 100 people for every 100,000 citizens to incarcerating 454/100,000
(these do not include the growth in local jail populations that house criminals
sentenced to less than one year).
During most of this time period, crime rates increased or remained stable.
Crime has decreased over the last several years, but for reasons only marginally
related to decades of prison construction that cost billions of dollars. Most
criminologists attribute declines in crime to a variety of factors, including
the shift to more community-oriented policing, the declining number of people in
the ‘crime prone’ age bracket and changes in crack cocaine markets. Other
suggestion include simple fluctuations in the crime rate, with a downturn as a
natural consequence following the recent all-time high. Also, increased
employment as a result of economic growth results in more wealth going to
communities and less people unemployed.
It would be hard to quadruple the incarceration rate without it having
some effect on crime, but the Texas Comptroller discovered what many
criminologists already know: the state criminal justice system cannot solve the
crime problem. He writes that "the only point on which virtually all
students of Texas crime agree is that the ultimate answer to the state’s
rising crime must come from outside the sphere of criminal justice. Economic
hardship, the growing ‘underclass,’ drug addiction, the decline in moral and
educational standards, psychological problems and other root causes will never
be cured by punitive measures."
More prisons will not reduce crime because a shortage of prison cells is
simply not a cause of crime in Michigan. As FBI Director Freeh noted: "The
crime and disorder which flow from hopeless poverty, unloved children and drug
abuse can’t be solved merely by bottomless prisons, mandatory sentencing
minimums or more police."
Don’t we need prisons for increasing numbers of violent criminals?
Violent crime in both Michigan and the US has been declining slightly for the
past few years, but for reasons only slightly related to prisons (as discussed
in the previous section). Public perception of violent crime is frequently
different from official statistics because of crime coverage on television. Most
crimes reported to the police are property and drug offenses, with violent
offenses making up a small percentage. While violent crime can be traumatic for
the victim, "of the victims of all crime classified as ‘violent’
nationally in 1991, slightly over 1% required a hospital stay of one day or
more". Only 8% of violent crime victims went to a hospital emergency room.
The picture of crime on television is the exact opposite of reality: television
overemphasizes violent crime, especially homicide – and the more freakish the
violence, the more coverage it will receive.
Politicians like to talk about violent crime because it sounds good and there
is no one to speak up in opposition. Frequently, the actual policy has little to
do with violent crime and citizens are the victims of a ‘bait and switch’
scam. In sales, this ploy refers to a situation where
customers are ‘baited’ into a store by an advertisement for an item
at an extremely low price. Once in the store, the salesperson ‘switches’
the customer to a higher-priced product that the scheme was designed to
promote. In the criminal justice field, the ‘bait’ is citizen fear of
violent crime. The ‘switch’ occurs when public officials fight crime by
building more prisons but then fill the new cells with nonviolent
offenders. This scheme profits those who wish to appear ‘tough’ on
crime but in reality are failing to make America safe. One consequence of
this policy is that the criminal justice spends tens of billions of dollars
on prisons and then underfunds effective drug treatment, educational
programs, and violence prevention programs by asserting that there is not
enough money. (emphasis original)
The construction proposal in Michigan is classic bait and switch.
prison construction is supported by claims it is necessary for the increasingly
violent and assaultive criminals, the vast majority of the cells are minimum
security. Is Engler really going to imprison violent criminals in minimum
security cells? If not, he should state what types of criminals will be
housed in these new prisons and taxpayers can decide if it is worth the social
and financial costs.
It is good to keep in mind that when politicians discuss ‘repeat violent’
offenders, they typically mean ‘violent or repeat offenders’. Even this
latter phrase is problematic because it mixes assaultive criminals with those
who may have stolen bicycles on several occasions. Policies developed for the
violent criminals may not be appropriate for the repeat (minor) offenders; many
taxpayers who support spending to imprison violent offenders may feel
differently about an almost $200 million expenditure on petty criminals,
especially if it cuts into spending on violence reduction programs.
Don’t prisons provide good jobs?
Many communities want a prison because of economic development. With
globalization, technology and downsizing, industrial and manufacturing jobs have
disappeared. Prisons are an initial source of construction jobs, then the
ongoing operating costs translate into payroll and services purchased from local
businesses. For an individual city or small region, a prison may represent
needed economic development. But when many areas all pursue this strategy, money
is taken away from education and other social programs. Sustainable economic
prosperity for the state cannot come from investing in mops, but by dealing with
the root causes of the overflow. "If you intervene early" in the
lives of at risk youth, says Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University, "you
not only save the costs of incarceration, you also save the costs of crime and
gain the benefits of an individual who is a taxpaying contributor to the
If the state is going to be spending vast sums of money on construction
projects, it should be for schools and community centers. Money spent training
citizens to be jailers could be better spent training them to be teachers,
mentors, and counselors. Rather than running a collection of geriatric prisons
with wheelchair accessible cells, the state would do better to invest in at risk
But what really works in
Crime prevention does work, but it is easier not to take a chance and call
for politically popular that do not work. Programs can work when the money goes
to locations that are in need rather than those represented by powerful
politicians. More specifically, crime has many causes and it is important to
match target groups with the right program. A full discussion of how best to
deliver what intervetions and what services is beyond this paper. Interested
readers should consult Donziger’s The Real War on Crime, which contains
a description (including contact addresses) of many programs. Also, Currie’s
book, Crime and Punishment in America has an extensive and thoughtful
discussion. He identifies four priorities that are a good start: preventing
child abuse and neglect, enhancing children’s intellectual and social
development, providing support and guidance to vulnerable adolescents, and
working intensively with juvenile offenders. While none of these suggestions is
a cure-all, he notes that sometimes modest levels of assistance can make a great
difference. Other suggestions would include helping those with drug and alcohol
problems, and the delivery of more correctional interventions to those currently
incarcerated, so they will be less likely to reoffend when they are released.
For additional ideas, see StopViolence.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READING
Currie, Elliott. 1985. Confronting Crime: An American Challenge. N.Y.:
1998. Crime and Punishment in America: Why the Solutions to America’s
Most Stubborn Social Crisis Have Not Worked – and What Will. N.Y.:
Donziger, Stephen. 1996. The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National
Criminal Justice Commission. N.Y.: HarperPerennial.
Irwin and Austin. 1997. It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge,
2nd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth.
Jerome Miller. 1996. Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the
Criminal Justice System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reiman, Jeff. 1998. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology,
Class & Criminal Justice, 5th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Sharpe, John. 1992. Texas Crime, Texas Justice: A Report from the Texas
Performance Review. Austin: Office of the Comptroller.
What Every American Should Know About the Criminal Justice System http://www.ncianet.org/ncia/facts.html
 Sharpe, John. 1992.
Texas Crime, Texas Justice: A Report From the Texas Performance Review.
Austin: Office of the Comptroller of Public Accounts.
 Bureau of Justice Statistics.
at Midyear 1997.
House Fiscal Agency and Senate Fiscal Agency. 1986. Capital
Outlay & Operations Cost Analysis for Michigan’s Construction Program FY
1983-84 Through 1989-90.
 Currie, Elliott.
Crime: An American Challenge. New
 Currie, Elliott.
and punishment in America: Why the Solutions to America’s Most Stubborn Social
Crisis Have Not Worked – and What Will.
N.Y.: Metropolitan/Henry Holt.
 American Federation of State,
County and Municipal Employees -- Corrections United Advisory Committee. 1998.
Should Crime Pay?
Contact: AFSCME Corrections United, 625 L Street, NW, Washington, DC,
 Information about this incident
appeared in many newspapers and came to me through the Private
 Quoted in Reiman, Jeff. 1998.
The Rich Get Richer and the Poor
get Prison, 5th ed. Boston:
Allyn & Bacon.
 Quoted by John Douglas. 1997.
Journey Into Darkness. N.Y.:
Simon & Schuster Audioworks (audio cassette version of the book with the
 Miller 1996, p 33.
 Donziger, Steven.
1996. The Real War on Crime.
 Quoted in Butterfield, Fox.
1996. “Intervening Early Costs Less Than ‘3 Strikes’ Law, Study
Says” New York Times 23
June, p A24.