- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

America may not be able to afford its burgeoning prison system unless policy-makers overhaul their views about criminal justice, according to an analysis released yesterday by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“It’s a tempting leap of logic to assume the more people behind bars, the less crime there will be,” said the report, which Pew described as the first such study to address both state and federal prison populations. “But despite public expectations to the contrary, there is no clear cause and effect.”

The report suggests public officials weigh the benefits of incarceration as well as “evidence-based alternatives” that could save money but still protect public safety.

Big investments in prisons may not be “the most effective and economical way of combating crime,” said Susan Urahn, director of state policy research at Pew.


But the state and federal prison population grew from 190,000 in 1970 to 1.5 million by 2005 — an increase of 700 percent. By 2011, the prison census will be about 1.7 million — or one out of every 178 Americans. Inmates will outnumber the residents of Atlanta, Baltimore and Denver combined.

“The U.S. imprisons significantly more people than any other nation,” just beating China, which has imprisoned 1.5 million, the report said.

Total spending on local, state and federal corrections jumped from $9 billion in 1980 to $61 billion by 2003, with a “staggering” $27.5 billion increase expected by 2011, the report said, emphasizing the hard choices at stake.

“Every additional dollar spent on prisons is one dollar less that can go for preparing for the next Hurricane Katrina, educating young people, providing health care to the elderly or repairing roads and bridges,” the report stated.

The report highlighted a number of trends. Finding and retaining qualified corrections officers and other personnel is a major challenge in many states; all face a changing prison population. The number of female inmates will increase by 16 percent by 2011; the male population will increase by 12 percent, the report said.

The current yearly cost of tending the average prisoner? It ranges from a low of $13,009 in Louisiana to a high of $44,860 in Rhode Island.

The report based its projections and other information primarily on statistics from the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons and state resources. It is available online at www.pewtrusts.com.

“The bottom line is that the American correctional system is getting tough on criminals. But it is also getting tough on taxpayers,” project director Adam Gelb said. “Our sense is that there is more bipartisan agreement about sentencing and corrections than there has been in 25 years. Led by both Republicans and Democrats, states are taking a hard look at costs and starting to make tough decisions about who needs to go for prison, and for how long.”

Mr. Gelb added, “We’re fairly optimistic, given the level of concern and the openness to new approaches. There’s been an explosion of research about what works in the past decade. It’s starting to reach both the public and elected officials.”