Cost of Corrections in the United States

Did you know that 23 states prison systems are operating at over 100% capacity? "The increases in drug imprisonment, the decrease in releases from prison, and the re-incarceration for technical parole violations are leading to significant overcrowding and contribute to the growing costs of prisons. Prisons are stretched beyond capacity, creating dangerous and unconstitutional conditions which often result in costly lawsuits.

In 2006, 40 out of 50 states were at 90 percent capacity or more, with 23 of those states operating at over 100 percent capacity." (Justice Policy Institute, "Pruning Prisons: How Cutting Corrections Can Save Money and Protect Public Safety," May 2009, via the Prisons and Drug Offenders chapter.)

The United States today is arguably the most incarcerated society in human history. Some 3.2 percent of the adult population is in the correction system either incarcerated or on probation, parole or some other form of supervision, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The cost of operating prisons is one of the fastest growing areas in state budgets. Since 1990, state corrections costs have increased about 7.5 percent a year, according to the National Governors Association. In 1972, state inmate populations were about 175,000. Today, they stand at an astounding 1.4 million.

In this research paper I will touch further into, why this is happening, what’s being done, and what needs to be done. The first question I will be looking into is why is this happening? How come state inmate populations are increasing? Here are some major states and there problems. California is by far the most publicized, but certainly not the only state having challenging problems paying for its correctional system.

As with most state correctional systems, the California system is overcrowded with no real operational plan to resolve its overcrowding and other operational problems. Building new prisons is out of the question. The nation’s correctional systems have for the past two plus decades seen a continuous flow of prisoners going in and nothing more than a stream of prisoners coming out. One must also mention the unbelievable recidivism rate of 70%.

The “3 Strikes and You Are Out Law”, “Rockefeller Drug Laws”, mandated sentencing, and numerous other laws that were once believed to be tough on crime, I believe, are major contributing factors to the overcrowding of American prisons, and further increasing the operational costs. Another big state that I would like to touch on is Florida. Since 1996, Florida added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants and, at the same time, eliminated most exemptions for those who cannot pay.

The fee increases have not been accompanied by their other hidden costs: the impacts on those required to pay, the ways in which the debt can lead to new offenses and criminal charges, and the costs to counties, clerks and courts of collection mechanisms that fail to exempt those unable to pay. I would now like to talk about solutions to the costs of corrections and how certain states are beginning to solve there problems. States are taking a hard look at a variety of strategies for decreasing inmate populations, hopefully without sacrificing public safety.

For example, California has sought to reduce the number of low-risk parolees being returned to prison for technical violations of their parole by using intermediate sanctions rather than being sent back to prison. By doing this California has decreased its overpopulated prisons by several thousand. Further lowering the costs associated with it. Many states are adopting improved probation programs based on Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program.

Created in 2004, HOPE reformed California’s State’s policy so that probation violations resulted in immediate but small consequences, such as two days in jail. "Before this, offenders had to commit many infractions before facing consequences," according to the National Governors Association Best Practices Center, "but the consequences were expensive and often disproportionate to the infraction." New technologies also present opportunities to use alternatives to incarceration, particularly for low-risk offenders.

These alternative forms of supervision are usually a small fraction of the cost of incarceration. Rapid-result drug tests, he use of GPS monitors and ATM like reporting kiosks offer authorities ways to monitor offenders without the high cost of locking them up. These new capabilities are giving judges and prosecutors confidence they can protect public safety with sanctions other than a costly prison stay. Overall the costs of corrections in the Unites States are a problem. Every year they continue to rise and as a result our government wastes away money that could be put to better use. Even though some states are doing things to decrease these costs something needs to be done.