04/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Report: Prison-Packing Politics A National Disaster

According to a new Pew Center report, for the first time in our nation's history, one in a hundred Americans are behind bars. This reality, the report states, "significantly impacts state budgets without delivering a clear return on public safety."

To put this in perspective, the United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, including China, the most populated nation in the world. And because our declining economy is front and center in this election year, we can not afford to ignore a systematic drain as drastic as that of citizen incarceration and prison spending. Now is the time to demand our political leaders to do whatever is necessary to bring our economy into balance.

The full title of the report spells out its contents and aims: "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, identifies how corrections spending compares to other state investments, why it has increased, and what some states are doing to limit growth in both prison populations and costs while maintaining public safety."

Despite traditional tough-on-crime campaign rhetoric, the report concludes that policymakers are now "questioning the wisdom of devoting an increasingly large slice of the budget pie to incarceration, especially when recidivism rates have remained discouragingly high."

California is the undisputed leader in state prison spending, allocating a total of $8.8 billion last year in general funds to its corrections system. In order to close the budget deficit gap, Governor Schwarzeneggar proposes an across the board 10 percent reduction to all General Fund departments and programs, Boards, Commissions, and elected offices-including the legislative and judicial branches-except where such a reduction is in conflict with the state constitution or impractical. This proposal will result in a reduction in K-14 education spending in the current year of $400 million and suspending the Proposition 98 minimum guarantee in 2008-09 of $4 billion. He also proposes a reduction of approximately $4 billion in most other state programs that will lead to significant reductions in the areas of education, social services, transportation and water quality programs. The result will invariably be massive layoffs of teachers, administrators and social workers as well as the closing of state parks and delayed highway rehabilitation and maintenance.

Despite the numerous cuts in critical state programs, $10.6 billion is presently allocated for corrections systems in California during the 2008-2009 fiscal year. This is an increase of $1.8 billion in prison spending and includes $7.7 billion for prison construction, despite the fact that the prison population decreased by 4,068 last year and the state is faced with a $16 billion budget deficit.

Critics of Governor Schwarzeneggar's proposals have a different perspective. "While the administration's approach of across-the-board reductions has the appeal of fairness, it reflects little effort to prioritize and determine which state programs provide essential services or are most critical for California's future. The risk with the administration's approach is that--by attempting to preserve most funding for most programs--many programs end up operating in a less than optimal manner and provide lower quality services to the public," according to the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) of California. In other words, why is the state continuing to fund non-functional and ineffective prison programs?

As though the $16.5 billion budget deficit were not enough, last Friday, the governor asked the California legislature to approve an additional $7.7 billion in construction spending in order to bring California prisons into compliance with constitutional standards as they relates to housing the mentally ill. If approved, the corrections systems will have a total of $14.7 billion for construction. Approval for the new prisons will require the cash strapped state to go further into debt. Approval by the citizens of the state is circumvented by a request "to use a type of bonds that requires only lawmakers' permission," according the Los Angeles Times. The real question underlying this recent proposal is, Why are the mentally ill in prison and not in mental institutions that are equipped to deal with their special physical and psychological issues? In other words, where is the wisdom in building new prisons especially to house the mentally ill when the staff and administrators are not professionally equipped to deal with the problems those prisoners face? The next question is, who will be awarded the construction contracts valued at $7.7 billion, $14.7 billion total, and how will the contractors be selected? Will it be a Halliburton no bid situation? The answer to the latter will most certainly reveal those individuals who support the approval of the increased prison spending. It will also constitute a group who will not have to worry about whether they will be able to afford a college education for their children.

Apparently, California is merely setting a trend for a tsunami effect that is sweeping across our country. Thirteen states now devote over $1 billion in general funds to their corrections systems to the detriment of other critical state programs, particularly education. The genesis for this crisis can be directly traced to the financial impact of the three strikes laws that have led to prison overcrowding and the significantly disproportional misallocation of much needed funds to our state, federal and local prison systems. "While states don't necessarily choose between higher education and corrections, a dollar spent in one area is unavailable for another," according to the Pew report.

What is curious is that there are no thirty or forty second snippets being played across the media airwaves regarding this catastrophe. What could be more anti-American than jeopardizing the future of our country through the misallocation of taxpayer dollars to the detriment of education, healthcare, transportation and infrastructure? Where are the exhaustive rants of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Curtis Sliwa and Greta Van Sustern on this topic? Why aren't we inundated by the media with information concerning this crisis and its devastating impact on our economy? Where is the outrage? And, better still, what is the agenda of those desiring to be president of our country as it relates to out-of-control prison incarceration and spending?

Senator Obama's stance can be assessed by his statement on the issues set forth on his website. In Illinois, Senator Obama passed one of the country's first anti-racial profiling laws and helped reform a broken death penalty system. As president, Senator Obama proposes to reduce crime recidivism by providing ex-offender support in the form of job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, in order to allow successful re-integration into society. Senator Obama also intends to promote the creation of prison-to-work incentive programs to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates. Senator Obama further proposes to eliminate the sentencing disparities between sentencing for crack versus powder-based cocaine. He also believes in the expanded use of drug courts that will allow first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. There is no indication as to where Senators Clinton and McCain stand as it relates to prison reform and the corresponding exorbitant costs.

"For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn't been a clear and convincing return for public safety," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project. "More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers."

The Pew report points out the necessity of locking up violent and repeat offenders, but notes that prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime, or a corresponding surge in the nation's population at large. Instead, it is a direct result of the Bill Clinton, promoted and sponsored "three strikes" measures and other sentence enhancements that require prisoners to remain in prison for longer periods of time, often for life. To further aggravate matters, there are those who are recycled into the prison community because of violating technical rules relating to their probation or parole. In California, probation and parole violators make up a significant portion of the prison population.

In addition to the enormous costs, the policies leading to increased prison populations have disproportionately impacted young African American males. According to the Pew report, as of January 1, 2008, 1 in 9 Black men between the ages of 20-34 is behind bars. And, 1 in 15 of Black men 18 or older is behind bars, compared to 1 in 106 of white men and 1 in 36 for Hispanic men.

There is no question that violent offenders and those who repeatedly threaten community safety need prison cells. However, the fiscal burden of housing prisoners who have committed low level offenses or technical parole violations requires law makers to revisit their stance of public safety in order to maintain vital state programs in the areas of education, housing, transportation and healthcare to name a few. It is a clear drain on state budgets to adequately provide medical and dental care. There are also the special needs populations including those with mental illness, HIV, geriatric prisoners, diabetics and those in need of very costly hepatitis C treatment.

The tab for caring for prisoners is also exploding because of staff overtime expenses and a steep rise in inmate healthcare costs, both physical or mental. For instance, overtime costs in California were half a billion dollars in 2006 with 15% of the corrections workforce earning at least $25,000 in overtime. Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar earns $212,179 per year as governor. In 2007, six correctional officers earned more than the governor by working over time. It is highly unlikely that six teachers (whether pre-school, k-12 or college professors) had the privilege of earning more than the governor last year despite the fact they are entrusted with one of the most invaluable jobs of our society.

Twenty years ago, the states collectively spent $10.6 billion of their general funds--their primary discretionary dollars--on corrections. Last year, they spent more than $44 billion in general funds, a 315 percent jump, and more than $49 billion in total funds from all sources. Pew found that over the same 20-year period, inflation-adjusted general fund spending on corrections rose 127 percent while higher educatio expenditures rose just 21 percent.

We must remain mindful that "states are paying a high cost for corrections--one that may not be buying them as much in public safety as it should. And spending on prisons may be crowding out investments in other valuable programs that could enhance a state's economic competitiveness," said Susan K. Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. "There are other choices. Some state policy makers are experimenting with a range of community punishments that are as effective as incarceration in protecting public safety and allow states to put the brakes on prison growth."

It is high time for elected officials nationwide to devise programs that will allow less dangerous offenders to become productive citizens. Prison is not an appropriate sanction for having violated a technical term of release like missing a counseling session with his or her probation officer or because of a failed drug test. Neither is prison the place for non-violent offenders with drug addictions and mental illness. States could benefit enormous if low level offenders are allowed to become productive citizens even if in a supervised environment. These same individuals can contribute to the economy by paying taxes, child support and contributing to our gross national product instead of draining our economy.

The Texas legislature wisely decided to do a virtual makeover of their entire correctional system after its prison population increased by 300 % to the tune of $2.3 billion investment in additional beds. Instead of more beds, Texas decided to dramatically expand its drug treatment and diversion beds, mostly in secure facilities. The also approved broad changes in parole practices and expanded drug courts with an anticipated savings of $443 million over the next two years, according to the Pew report.

In the event you are of the opinion this problem does not impact you, you'll be forced to rethink your position if you or a loved one happens to experience a financial disaster and are suddenly faced with educating your child through a state funded preschool program, choosing a quality K-12 school or selecting an appropriate and affordable college or university for your graduating senior. We need to be concerned about whether state funds will be available for infrastructure support for our bridges and highways lest we forget the disasters of the past few years. We must remain mindful that excessive incarceration and prison spending is a non-partisan issue that must be addressed on a federal, state and local level.

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