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We Can't Afford To Lock So Many People Away

Connecticut's prisons costing much more than we thought

By Tom Condon

February 02, 2012

Two reports in the past week offer a bad-news, good-news incentive for prison reform. The first says prisons cost way more than we think they do (and we thought they were back-breakingly expensive). The second says we shouldn't put as many people in them as we do.

The fiscal revelation is from "The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers" from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. The Vera researchers reviewed prison costs in 40 states, looking at both the operating budgets and the prison-related costs outside the department's budget, such as employee fringe benefits, pension contributions and other costs.

They found that in fiscal 2010, the Connecticut Department of Correction had $613.3 million in direct prison expenditures, plus $316.2 million in other prison-related costs. The total cost of Connecticut's prisons and jails to incarcerate an average daily population of 18,492 (which has since dropped slightly) was $929.4 million.

The researchers said they were unable to get information on whether some legal and health care costs were also outside the operating budget, so say their estimate is conservative.

So, if the numbers are in the ballpark, Connecticut is spending more than $50,000 annually per inmate.

Now the good news: This is crazy.

That's an inference from Adam Gopnik's much-discussed Jan. 30 New Yorker piece, "The Caging of America." The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, 754 per 100,000 people. Most comparable countries are in the one-hundreds; Germany is at 85 per 100,000. Gopnik observes that mass incarceration "on a scale almost unexampled in human history" is the moral scandal of our time, as slavery was in 1850. Indeed, "there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system in prison, on probation or on parole than were in slavery then."

There are more Americans under correctional supervision well over 6 million than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin. At least 50,000 men are in solitary confinement in the U.S. There are some 70,000 prison rapes a year. Prison rape is standard fodder for comedy. Think about it for a minute how funny is it?

America's prison population tripled since 1980, due to such things as draconian drug laws, mandatory minimum sentences and zero tolerance policing. It appeared then that crime would be a permanent feature of urban life.

Then a strange thing happened. Starting in the 1990s, crime started to drop, ultimately by 40 percent across the continent and up to 80 percent in New York City. Here Gopnik cites a new book subject by criminologist Franklin E. Zimring, who studied the drop in crime in the Big Apple. Zimring finds the drop in crime across the Western World inexplicable. But he has a counterintuitive explanation for the additional drop in New York crime.

It's not that the city solved poverty, increased employment or ended discrimination. It wasn't the prisons; New York City put fewer people in prison during this period. It wasn't "broken windows." Zimring says "small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime." These include putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened "hot-spot policing" and a controversial program of "stop and frisk" (a tactic in need of some refinement).

That's because "criminal activity seems like most other human choices a question of contingent occasions and opportunity. Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes." Take away the opportunity, crime doesn't move across the street, it goes down. This makes sense. If someone was checking the incomes of the state workers who falsely applied for emergency food stamp benefits in the fall, they probably wouldn't have done it.

The conclusion here is that prison doesn't have much of a deterrent effect on crime and should be used as most civilized countries do for violent offenders. Most potential white-collar criminals will be deterred by loss of their bank accounts and community service seven days a week. Hit the norm for most wealthy, free countries about 100 men per 100,000 in prison and we could reduce abject cruelty and save some real money.

Tom Condon can be reached at tcondon@courant.com

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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