The high costs of throwing everyone and their brother into jail

by pkerkstra on August 8, 2011

Seriously, it’s just too expensive. My latest column for the Inquirer is here. Excerpt:

You know money is tight when politicians – Republicans, no less – start talking about how expensive it is to lock people up.

In more normal times, few things get elected officials more excited than rigging the justice system with mandatory minimum sentences and other legislative maneuvers designed to stiffen the spines of squishy judges. The idea, of course, is to ensure that offenders, violent or otherwise, do the hardest time possible.

Voters are a skittish bunch. In large cities and small towns alike, they tend to think crime is getting worse though criminal violence has declined steadily since the early 1990s.

So politically, it has made sense to “get tough,” indefinitely. Fiscally though, the lock-everybody-up mania has been a disaster.

As reported by The Inquirer’s Joelle Farrell, Pennsylvania’s corrections budget now stands at $1.86 billion. That’s nearly half of Philadelphia’s entire annual operating budget. And it’s no wonder. The commonwealth’s prisons are now home to 51,000 inmates, up 41 percent since 1999.

The good news is that, if the political will is there, it’s not all that hard to get a handle on prison costs. It doesn’t require a huge drop in crime. It doesn’t require a willingness to let violent felons off easy. What it requires is a modicum of judgment, a realization that it’s not necessarily in the public’s best interest to go for the maximum punishment in every single instance.

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