Friday, April 29, 2011

Prisoners of Spenda

A Thursday Star Tribune story described proposed cuts to the state prison system budget. The accompanying number box told us that Minnesota is ranked 49th for both its incarceration rate and the amount of money it spends on prisons. The box also compared the number incarcerated in Minnesota vs. Wisconsin (9,650 vs. 22,212) and the amounts spent by the two states ($465 million vs. $1.279 billion). For those keeping score, Minnesota has 57% fewer prisoners, but a 64% lower budget.

(In case you were thinking Wisconsin has a correspondingly higher overall population, you were wrong. Wisconsin has only about 400,000 more residents, 5,686,986 vs. 5,303,925.)

That's the good news. The bad new is that Minnesota's prison population rose 39 percent between 2002 and 2010, while crime rates were down.

On the state level, the corrections budget seems to me metaphorically similar to the national defense budget -- unassailable because it "keeps us safe." But I guess not. Tony Cornish, the Republican chair of the House Public Safety Committee has proposed a $26 million cut to the budget (and this after $109 million in cuts that have happened over the past eight years).

Cornish has some interesting ideas about ways to make that work: He wants low-level offenders (drug dealers, thieves, burglars) to be eligible for early release into community corrections programs and for the state to release elderly inmates to keep medical costs down.

Reasonable sounding, even to me. But the flip side of those proposals is that low-level offenders won't get any help finding a job, either before they're released (through vocational programs) or afterward (through placement) since that money is also cut, so it seems pretty likely they'll soon reoffend and victimize someone else along the way. And the same budget would eliminate drug treatment for inmates. That sounds cost-effective.

But what about the idea of releasing the sick, elderly inmates to nursing homes?

All that does is move that cost burden to someone else's budget (Medicaid?); plus, released offenders are difficult to place, as the story says, "because families of other residents fear their relatives would be endangered."

Even with all that, I couldn't help dividing Minnesota's corrections budget by the number of prisoners to find out that we currently spend $48,187 per inmate per year. Like many another, I find it irresistible to compare that to our per-pupil K-12 spending of around $10,000. Just a guess, but maybe it would work best to keep as many people as possible from going into the prisons in the first place.

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