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Playing hardball with criminals.

Legislators and the public demand stiff penalties for criminals, but the costs may mean the taxpayer strikes out.

Inmates in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility rioted for 11 days beginning on April 11 last year. That clinched the state's decision to pump substantial money into the corrections budget. Lawmakers were already committed to bolstering state funding for corrections, but the disturbance resulted in even more funds and a change in how the money would be used. Instead of spending most of the new money on parole and community corrections programs, the legislature shifted it to institutional operations and more prison guards. The bottom line was an 18.4 percent increase in corrections spending for FY 1994.

Ohio's spending experience isn't unique or an aberration--most states have devoted significant amounts to corrections. Spending in the last decade illustrates the extraordinary growth in state corrections budgets. In FY 1982, the states spent almost $6 billion on corrections. Ten years later, the amount had grown to more than $20 billion, an increase of 241 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the increase was 124 percent, more than double the inflation-adjusted rise in general state expenditures.

"In the 1980s, we had a get-tough-on-criminals philosophy with mandatory sentencing and longer sentences, particularly for drug crimes. As a result, corrections spending accelerated," says Steven Gold of the Rockefeller Institute's Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York.

Recent data suggest that this trend is continuing into the mid-1990s. State corrections spending in FY 1993 increased more than 8 percent from the year before. FY 1994 tells a similar story. Total state appropriations for corrections grew 9.7 percent, capturing the title for the biggest percentage increase of any state spending category. This rate of growth surpassed the increase in appropriations for Medicaid, the long-time nemesis of state budgeters.

Even during fiscal downturns, corrections spending has held its own. During the recession of the early 1980s, state finances were in a turmoil. By 1983, 35 states had cut their budgets and 19 were projecting deficits. It is difficult to imagine that any spending category could remain intact under those conditions, but corrections did. Not only did corrections budgets maintain overall spending levels, they grew faster than any other program.

The recession of the early 1990s reflects a similar situation. Funding for corrections remained a priority despite some serious budget problems. Even California, a state with a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit, increased corrections appropriations by 15.3 percent for FY 1994. This occurred at the same time the state was cutting its general fund budget and followed 10 years of corrections spending that grew, on average, 14 percent annually. Corrections is now about 7 percent of total state spending in California, up from about 3 percent a decade ago.

Corrections is somewhat different from other state programs because such a large proportion of corrections budgets cover institutional operating costs, which are pretty well established. This makes it difficult for states to control corrections spending in the same way they control other state programs. "Corrections costs are driven by sentencing laws, the physical characteristics of prisons and prisoner-to-guard ratios," says Harold A. Hovey, editor of State Policy Reports. "I doubt that there is anything very exciting that can be done to control corrections budgets using traditional budget cutting strategies."

Spending on corrections remains a relatively modest portion of total general fund budgets, averaging just over 5 percent nationally--up from just over 3 percent in FY 1986. It's the continued rate of growth that raises red flags. "The new prominence of crime issues with the public gives every reason to expect corrections budgets to continue to grow rapidly," says Hovey. This presents a dilemma for state lawmakers: Can they continue to fund the rapid increases in corrections spending, often at the expense of other state programs? There isn't an easy answer. The problem is exacerbated because corrections isn't the only category straining state budgets. Medicaid and elementary and secondary education keep consuming big chunks, and other state programs want their share, too. It seems inevitable that something has to give, but so far it hasn't been corrections.

Prison Population Booms

Several factors influence the growth in corrections budgets, but increases in the number of criminals sent to state prisons are the most conspicuous. There were just over 380,000 state prisoners in 1982, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 1993, the number had grown to a record high of 859,295, an increase of 124 percent. Five states reported increases of at least 10 percent that year with the largest in Connecticut (20.1 percent), Texas (16.2 percent), Minnesota (15.5 percent) and Mississippi (15.2 percent). Eight states and the District of Columbia reported decreases in their prison populations, but their aggregate decline was only 716 inmates.

Although California's spending on corrections dwarfs the figures from other states--its corrections budget reached $2.76 billion in FY 1994--the growth in its prison population is representative of the situation in other places. By the end of 1994, California's inmate population is projected to increase 7.5 percent over 1993 levels (to 122,000 inmates) and the parole population is projected to increase 6.4 percent (to 94,000 parolees). These projections help explain the 15 percent growth in California's corrections budget.

As the data for California illustrate, growth in the prison population has been expensive for states, and it shows no sign of easing. There is every indication that for most states, the problem will get worse before it gets better. Although a handful of states seem to have their prison populations under control, the Council on Crime and Delinquency reports that the aggregate state prison population is expected to surpass 1.1 million inmates by 1996. As that population swells, so does the need for more prisons.

Building new prisons is a costly undertaking, but most states issue bonds to cover the expense. It's the operating costs that take the biggest bite out of the general fund budget. A full two-thirds of state corrections budgets go toward funding correctional institutions, including the costs to operate, maintain and staff prisons. As the prison boom continues, state budgets will continue to take a hit. In Texas, for example, the comptroller of public accounts reports that prison operating costs--not including original construction or debt service--have ballooned by some 2,000 percent since 1980 and are expected to rise by another two-thirds by the turn of the century.

If more prisoners weren't enough, budgets are also being squeezed by rising incarceration costs. The average per-inmate cost in 1984 was $11,302, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It had grown to $15,604 by 1990, the latest year for which data are available. Inflation explains part of this growth, but another factor is the cost of complying with court-ordered provisions such as improving prison facilities and increasing prison staffing levels.

States Play Hardball

Not only are more prisoners coming into the system, they are also staying longer because of harsher sentencing laws. "Three strikes you're out" laws are the latest attempt to lock 'em up and throw away the key. These laws, which generally mandate a life sentence for a third felony conviction, are now on the books in some form in about a third of the states.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the new "three strikes" laws is how they will affect state budgets. Longer prison stays have obvious fiscal implications: If inmates don't move out of the system, the prison population balloons and a series of state fiscal commitments are set in motion.

Because three strikes laws vary in the felonies they cover and the length of prison sentences they impose, the fiscal consequences also vary and are difficult to predict.

Analysts in Georgia did come up with an estimate: the cost is projected to be $2.5 million in FY 1999, the first year the budget will feel the impact of the extra prison population. By 2001, the fiscal impact jumps to $20 million and by 2008, costs are expected to reach $98.6 million. For comparison purposes, the state's FY 1994 general fund budget hovered around $9 billion.

Washington, whose general fund budget was about $8 billion for FY 1994, expects its new three strikes law to have a similar fiscal impact. Total costs for the first year are expected to be about $3 million, but by the third year they are anticipated to rise dramatically--operating costs are estimated at $54 million. When prison construction costs are added, the fiscal impact reaches $3.6 billion. "The budget implications of three strikes are nightmarish," says Senator Adam Smith, chair of the Judiciary Committee and a prosecuting attorney.

It's a Young Man's Game

The budget implications of three strikes laws concern policymakers, especially experts on crime who doubt the effectiveness of such laws to deter and reduce crime. Many criminologists argue that the three-time felon rule is only marginally effective in the fight against crime because as offenders get older, they get less criminal. "By age 40 or so, few people are actively involved in criminal careers," says Frank Cullen of the University of Cincinnati's criminal justice department. "The effect of three strikes laws is that states experience diminishing returns on every dollar they spend. Because older inmates aren't as likely to commit crimes, the states aren't preventing any crimes by keeping them incarcerated."

This raises another budgetary concern about three strikes laws: As inmates get older, their health costs increase. "If three strikes policies are written broadly, we're going to end up with geriatric prisons," says Cullen. "With a substantial elderly prison population, the health costs will be enormous with virtually no crime savings." Health care costs for inmates are already a budget concern in several states. In Connecticut, for instance, the double-digit growth in corrections spending for FY 1994 will be used in part to fund more health care facilities for prisoners.

A Fever Pitch

Recent accounts of heinous crimes and random acts of violence have fueled public worry about crime and given impetus to provisions like three strikes policies. "The public is being stressed to a fever pitch because the media have chosen to focus on crime. There's danger in that, but we as legislators need to respond to the public," says

Washington Senator Adam Smith.

Yet, recent statistics show crime rates are lower than they have been for some time. "Everything we know about crime now is that it is not getting worse," says Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota law school, "yet we also know everybody believes it's getting worse."

Even if it isn't getting worse, many would argue that it's at an unacceptable level. That perception, and the mounting pressure on state lawmakers, has propelled costly state activities to fight crime such as the three strikes laws.

Get-tough-on-crime policies are so popular that it is politically difficult for an elected official to oppose them, even if they carry exorbitant price tags like the three-felony laws. Looming elections make candidates leery of opposing these provisions because they can't afford to be seen as soft on crime--an unpopular stance in today's environment. Unfortunately, that fear can inhibit lawmakers from making well-reasoned, fiscally responsible decisions.

Frank Cullen thinks that's exactly what's happening--no rational public discussion of crime is occurring. "At every level, from Congress to the state legislatures, there are lots of punitive policies being proposed without any--I mean any--consideration as to whether they can work or not. It's irresponsible, but no political leader now, in this climate, can risk standing up to it." But if lawmakers don't stand up to trendy and popular policies, they may find the corrections tab too costly--at the expense of other necessary programs.

Ruth Wright, a long-time Colorado House member who recently announced her retirement from the legislature, takes this issue to heart. "My biggest disappointment was not being able to have realistic sentencing laws. As a result, we have three times as many prisoners as we did 10 years ago with no safer streets. We will be spending so much money to incarcerate people that we won't have much to spend on the preventive and educational side," she says. Colorado is not alone. According to Ronald Slaby, a psychologist and education specialist at Harvard University, only 6 percent of what governments spend on crime control goes to prevention. The rest is used for enforcement and detention.

The question about how best to spend money in the fight against crime has inspired debate among legislators, criminologists and others. One pertinent issue is how tough criminal laws should be and whether they effectively reduce crime at a cost states can bear. Senator Smith sees it this way. "Regarding how tough the laws are, I think there are three levels: where they're at right now, which is not sufficient; where they should be, which is slightly tougher sentences in certain areas; and where the public wants them to be, which is way up high to a point that we could not possibly afford to do even if it was good policy. Politicians have to fight as hard as possible to help educate the public as to where the laws should be while at the same time not just accepting where they're at."

Even if state policymakers are successful in crafting criminal laws that are "appropriately" severe, they already are committed to a certain level of corrections spending. This means that the pressure on state corrections budgets, and the corresponding effects on total general fund budgets, is likely to continue. This pressure will only get worse if prison inmate projections prove to be accurate. As one state official in Virginia noted, "This is a growth industry we could do without."


Corrections spending in the states is pretty much synonymous with prison costs. Although "intermediate punishments"--those falling between traditional probation and a prison sentence--have been used for years, such sanctions are not applied to large numbers of offenders. Hence, prison populations continue to rise, and corrections budgets remain on the upward growth curve.

"Real savings come when you actually dip into the institutional budget and free up money for community corrections," says Judith Greene, who directs state-centered programs on correctional policy for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Their objective: Make prison the backstop, rather than the backbone, of the corrections system.

Greene points to work in several states as a promising start to reducing reliance on prisons and controlling costs.

Intermediate punishments that are nonresidential and that keep nonviolent offenders in the corrections system for a shorter period of time are the surest cost-savers, according to Gail Funke, a Virginia-based economist who has studied corrections. These include intensive supervised probation, day reporting centers, house arrest and electronic monitoring, restitution and fines. Operating costs of such programs are $3,000 to $4,000 per year for each offender, as opposed to as much as $20,000 for a prison inmate, Funke said.

Additional benefits of some intermediate punishments are the fees paid by offenders. And policymakers are interested in criminals getting treatment and jobs, possible to a greater extent in community corrections than in prison.

"Many states, if they could divert a few hundred prison-bound people each year, can slow and maybe even stop growth of corrections spending," Funke said.

But savings won't be immediate and will require systematic overhauls and a view of corrections beyond that of prison. "You have to be willing to take the long view," she said.

In Oregon, corrections costs created a considerable dilemma a few years ago when a tax revolt initiative left the state in a serious budget crisis. But instead of the predictable response of dropping community corrections contracts to grab some short-term savings, lawmakers invested in community corrections and are now beginning to see fiscal benefit in that policy approach, Greene said. A new pot of money was created for intermediate sanctions by squeezing dollars out of the corrections budget, achieved mostly by shortening the length of parole supervision for certain offenders.

The state now has an infrastructure of community-based programs that lawmakers can consider as alternatives to prison, Green said. The state also is investing in an evaluation of risk in community corrections programs in order to document the effectiveness of various programs and to use that information in making decisions about sentencing policy and program expansion.

In Pennsylvania, counties are working with the state to expand community corrections. To do so, money from the corrections budget is being diverted to another state agency to administer community punishments, a move initiated by the corrections commissioner. And in Indiana, the prison population growth rate is slowing down, attributable at least in part to money diverted from institutional corrections to alternative programs run by localities and private, nonprofit organizations and overseen by the department of corrections. "These are modest beginnings," Greene said, "but real effects are being seen."


Prison construction is at an all-time high as states respond to the public's demand to lock up more convicts for a longer time. Texas alone expects to open 48 new prisons in 1994 and 1995 compared to the four it opened in 1993. The number of beds in the Texas corrections system will be doubled when the new prisons open. At the end of 1993, the state corrections system already had 71,100 inmates in existing facilities. The sharp rise in construction is being underwritten by back-to-back billion-dollar bond issues approved by Texas voters. The construction boom in other states is taking shape in the form of new wings added to older prisons, stand-alone cell blocks, boot camps and other correctional facilities.

Florida is expected to complete enough new prisons between fiscal 1994 and 1996 to add 31,000 more beds to the state system. This construction boom is motivated in part by lawmakers who want convicts to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being released. In Pennsylvania five new prisons opened in a recent 13-month period and two more are under construction. California will open two new prisons in 1994 and another two in 1995. Prison capacity is expected to be strained as three strikes legislation funnels more prisoners into the system.

Ohio hopes to have five facilities come on-line during the current biennium for an additional 3,400 prison beds. But prison officials may have to delay the opening of two of them for lack of operating money. North Carolina reports that it has 9,900 additional prison beds planned or already under construction.

The gradual rise in new prisons constructed during this period is expected to steepen if the activity in some states is any indication.


Although corrections debates often focus on adult offenders, growing concern about youth violence and gang activities has prompted many states to re-examine their juvenile justice policies. More than a dozen states revamped youth offender laws in their 1994 legislative sessions. These actions underscore what many criminologists think is a key to fighting the crime battle: Help at-risk kids before they get too far into a criminal career.

Washington's Omnibus Youth Violence Prevention Act (Chapter 7, Laws of 1994, 1st Special Session) is a comprehensive way to prevent and reduce youth violence. It illustrates the types of programs states are trying and what they expect to spend. Washington's approach includes:

* Public health and safety networks composed of pre-existing community councils. The networks coordinate local activities and provide direct services to young people to reduce the risk of juvenile crime, abuse and neglect, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, suicide, substance abuse and school drop-out (tab: $6 million).

* Employment and training programs that expand afternoon and evening school-to-work programs for at-risk youths, provide training in construction through projects that improve low-income housing, and offer improved education and employment opportunities to kids involved in the judicial system through learning and life skills centers (tab: $2.25 million).

* Improved rehabilitation services through better vocational training and more substance abuse programs in juvenile institutions and more incarceration options such as juvenile boot camps. Funds also will be allocated to cover increases in juvenile prisoners resulting from stiffer penalties for certain crimes such as possession of a gun by a minor (tab: $4.8 million).

Financing for the Youth Violence Act is coupled with the 1989 Omnibus Alcohol and Controlled Substances Act, whose funding sources are scheduled to expire at the end of the 1993-95 biennium. The Youth Violence Act authorizes $116 million in spending ($94 million for existing programs and $22 million for the new youth provisions), but is subject to voter ratification in November. The $116 million will come from taxes on cigarettes, beer, wine, liquor and carbonated beverages, and increased fees on concealed pistol permits and licenses for firearms dealers.

Corina Eckl tracks tax and spending issues for NCSL's Fiscal Affairs program.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on juvenile corrections, prison construction and alternatives to incarceration; corrections spending
Author:Eckl, Corina
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Previous Article:The giveaway game: you lose.
Next Article:Hush little baby, don't get sick.

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