Thinking Correctly about Corrections

Source: "State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2016."
Source: “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2016.”

by James A. Bacon

In 2015 the Commonwealth of Virginia spent $1.13 billion operating state prisons holding 25,000 inmates. Is the state spending too much imprisoning people, or too little? Could it spend the money better? Those are questions we need to ask as Virginia faces a future of chronic fiscal stress. As I have blogged previously, we need to re-think state government from top to bottom, stem to stern.

James V. Koch, president emeritus of Old Dominion University and the lead author of “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2016,” applies economic thinking to the way Virginia deals with crime, incarceration and rehabilitation. His analysis doesn’t fit traditional “liberal” or “conservative” views of the problem, which makes it all the more worth thinking about.

The modern era of prison administration in Virginia began in 1994 when, at the urging of then-Governor George Allen, the General Assembly abolished parole for violent offenders. A tougher parole law, combined with a three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, precipitated a surge in Virginia’s prison population as offenders served longer sentences. The cost of running the prison system increased from 2.82% of total state expenditures in 1993 to 3.79% in 2002, making it one of the fastest-growing categories of state spending. Although absolute costs have continued to increase, prison’s share of state spending declined to 3.21% in 2015 as crime rates fell and the size of the prison population leveled off.

A central issue that Koch addresses is to what extent the get-tough approach on sentencing and parole contributed to the decline in crime rates. Are we keeping more offenders than necessary in prison and running up the cost of corrections more than we need to?

His review of the literature led Koch to conclude that “incapacitation” — taking criminals off the streets — is one of several factors accounting for Virginia’s decline in crime. “The available reputable research concerning the determinants of crime rates does not point to a single cause for the declines we have observed,” he writes. “Even so, the consensus is that increased incarceration probably [accounts for] 10 to 15 percent of observed declines in these rates.”

Here’s where it gets interesting:

It seems likely that the law of diminishing returns applies to law enforcement and imprisonment. Arrests focused on the most serious crimes and habitual criminals likely will reduce crime rates; however, as the volume of arrests increases, less serious crimes receive more attention and less dangerous criminals are arrested. Hence, each incremental arrest generates a progressively smaller decline in crime rates.

What this says to me is that the incapacitation strategy does work, but it needs to be fine-tuned.

Virginia spends $28,000 per inmate on average to operate its prisons, according to Koch’s data. Presumably, the cost of incarcerating less dangerous inmates in low- and medium-security prisoners is somewhat lower, but let’s use that number for purposes of comparison. What is the cost of operating an outpatient substance abuse program? Half? Two-thirds? And how does the recidivism rate from substance abuse programs compare to the recidivism rates for prison? If Virginia could take 5,000 substance abusers out of prison and treat them in outpatient programs cost $14,000 a year, could the state could save $70 million — and turn more offenders into productive citizens in the bargain?

Those numbers are purely illustrative. But they provide an idea of the kind of economic thinking Virginia needs to apply to its corrections system.

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5 responses to “Thinking Correctly about Corrections”

  1. JB, you say this “provide[s] an idea of the kind of economic thinking Virginia needs to apply to its corrections system.” What’s more, you say, this could “turn more offenders into productive citizens in the bargain.” Mr. Koch’s study seems to suggest that imprisonment in Virginia should be considered apart from the crime committed but be subjected to a Certificate Of Public Necessity economic screening process, like allowing new hospital beds, or the licensing of beauticians. At $28,000 per felon per year, we could more than balance the State’s budget by simply releasing every felon, period. Why be selective about it?

    Additionally, we have discussed on these pages how Republicans need to prevent our Democrat Governor from restoring convicted felons’ voting rights — else civilization as we know it would collapse. If the GA were to drop its resistance to mass executive clemency while requiring that the Governor condition every early release from Virginia prisons upon a lifetime commitment to vote Republican, ensured by submitting ‘absentee’ ballots for review by the Parole Board prior to voting, this could be a win-win for everyone (but Democrats). And, that would leave room in the prisons to fill, so Republican lawmakers could think of ways to scoop up yet another tranche of the citizenry (on Trumped-up charges?) to repeat the process and make more Republicans for life. Just think of the legislative hours saved by eliminating the Gerrymander.

  2. James Bacon Avatar
    James Bacon

    Acbar, I believe your body has been possessed by the spirit of Jonathan Swift.

  3. Larrytheg Avatar

    The numbers below says it all….

    Numbers of incarcerated

    Country Prison population
    US 2,193,798
    CHINA 1,548,498
    RUSSIA 874,161
    BRAZIL 371,482
    INDIA 332,112
    MEXICO 214,450
    UKRAINE 162,602
    SOUTH AFRICA 158,501
    POLAND 89,546
    ENGLAND/WALES 80,002

    AUSTRALIA 25,790 <==== Virginia
    SCOTLAND 6,872
    N IRELAND 1,375

    we spend three times as much on imprisoning someone who
    was caught selling a few grams of cocaine that we do for at-risk
    kids – and we complain about the cost of educating the kid.

  4. James Bacon Avatar
    James Bacon

    Larry, what do you propose for someone who gets caught selling a “few grams of cocaine.” Do you recommend any punishment at all, or should we de-criminalize the selling of cocaine?

  5. Larrytheg Avatar

    not what we’ve been doing. not have such disparate treatment between selling crack versus oxy verses prescription drug abuse and not disparate treatment with regard to race – and not house such folks with violent felons.

    is this country treating drugs different than other countries and that’s the reason why we have so many more people in prison?

    we have more deaths from prescription drugs than cocaine… show me how many folks are in prison for violating prescription drug laws… why is it this way?

    CDC: Prescription Drugs Kill More Than Illegal Drugs

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