Crime and Punishment Cost Money
One of the success stories of government of the last 20 years has been the criminal justice system.
You may already be saying to yourself, “Huh? A government success story?”
The statement doesn’t fit too well with the narrative so popular among cable TV talking heads, where government can’t get anything right. It also doesn’t jibe with anecdotal portrayals of the criminal justice system as corrupt or bumbling.
The facts, the world around us, tell a different story.
Since the early 1990s, in North Carolina and nationally, crime rates have been falling. The drop has occurred in all categories of crime, both violent and property crimes.
Criminal justice experts like to debate the cause, and explore all kinds of demographic trends to explain the drop.
Some of them might be out of a job if they would acknowledge what is as plain as their collective noses: The drop coincided with the truth-in-sentencing movement, beginning in the late 1980s, that led to tougher and more transparent prison sentences for those convicted of serious crimes.
In North Carolina, that movement culminated with the Structured Sentencing Act of 1994.
The policy shift has meant rising prison populations. Today, the U.S. leads the developed world in incarceration rates. In North Carolina, the prison population has nearly doubled since 1992, rising from 21,000 to 41,000.
Understandably, plenty of people see these incarceration rates as objectionable. Public policy should be focused on ways to discourage people from a life of crime as both a moral imperative and for financial reasons.
But the incarceration rates can hardly be seen as a failure of the criminal justice system.
Today, North Carolina is a safer place than it was in the early 1990s. Keeping violent criminals behind bars longer is the primary reason.
Still, it’s not cheap imprisoning 41,000 people. This year, imprisoning those 41,000 and supervising thousands more on probation and parole will cost state taxpayers $1.3 billion.
Nationally, prison costs have risen 660 percent since 1982.
In a time of declining state budgets, state officials are increasingly caught between incarceration costs and the goal of keeping crime down.
In 2009, North Carolina legislators shaved off time on some prison sentences because of the rising prison population and the lack of public appetite to pay for more prisons.
This year, state legislators are looking at a package of reforms that includes more supervised parole time for felons in an attempt to reduce recidivism. It’s a good idea, but the advertised savings — aside from foisting some costs onto counties by pushing a few more prisoners down to local jails — are probably years away.
As the squeeze continues, here’s a point often missed: Declining crime rates haven’t just meant that people are safer.
They’ve also meant less costs for the private sector — less property loss, cheaper insurance.
If those in the private sector believe that’s been a good deal, they might want to contemplate what tax cuts, shrinking government budgets and prison closings will hold for the future.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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