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May 3, 2004 - The New York Times

With Longer Sentences, Cost of Fighting Crime Is Higher

By Fox Butterfield

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The cost of fighting crime in the United States, for police, prisons and courts, rose to a record $167 billion in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That is $20 billion more than was spent on the criminal justice system in 1999, the last time the Justice Department calculated the cost. It is also an increase of about 350 percent over 1982, when the total cost was $36 billion, the report said. Adjusted for inflation, the increase was about 150 percent.

The report, which was released yesterday, comes at a time when states are facing record budget deficits and both Republican and Democratic state legislators are beginning to take soaring prison costs seriously. In the last year, more than half the states took legislative steps to modify tough sentencing laws they passed in the 1990's, like scrapping mandatory minimum terms or requiring treatment instead of prison for first-time drug offenders, said Dan Wilhelm, director of the state sentencing and corrections program at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

"It is now becoming a bipartisan recognition of the magnitude of the challenge, given the incredibly punitive and expensive punishment system that has accumulated over the past 20 years," Mr. Wilhelm said.

The report highlights the crux of the problem.

The number of arrests rose only to 13.7 million in 2001 from 12 million in 1982, and the number of court cases grew only to 92.8 million in 2001 from 86 million in 1984, the report found.

But the number of state and federal prison inmates jumped to 1.3 million in 2001, up from only 488,000 in 1985. At the same time, the number of inmates in local and county jails tripled, to 631,000, the report said.

The disproportionate growth in inmates over the past two decades reflects a decision by the public and politicians to become more punitive, sentencing more offenders to incarceration and for longer terms, said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University.

"As a society, we became much more punitive and passed all kinds of laws like mandatory minimums, three strikes and you're out and sending juveniles into adult prisons," Professor Blumstein said.

"All this action occurred in the 1980's and 1990's when state budgets were growing and there was little concern for expenditures," he said. "But now states are faced with huge deficits and they are looking to prisons as a prime candidate to save money."

Spending on jails and prisons rose to $57 billion in 2001, from $9.6 billion in 1982, according to the report.

Spending on police protection and the courts also grew, though more slowly, with money for the police reaching $72 billion in 2001 and spending on the courts reaching $38 billion, the report said. Court spending includes the costs of judges, prosecutors, clerks and public defenders.

In total, the criminal justice system accounted for 7 percent of all state and local government spending in 2001, roughly equal to the amount spent on health and hospitals, the report found. The criminal justice system employed 2.3 million people in 2001, 747,000 of them as jail or prison guards.

Michael Jacobson, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the report was "another indicator, especially on the corrections side, that unless we do something more significant to change our punishment policies, these numbers are going to continue to be out of control."

Professor Jacobson is a former corrections and probation commissioner and deputy budget director for New York City. He is a specialist on the cost of corrections.

Many of the changes state legislators have made in the past two years to try to cut prison costs have been "minor reformist efforts, just nibbling around the edges," Professor Jacobson said.

Even if a state adds no new prisoners, the costs will still go up, because of contracts already in place for expenses like guards' salaries and medical care for inmates.

"There is a historical window here, where given the lower crime rate in recent years and the desire of a large number of legislators to cut prison costs, to take a new look at how we use mass incarceration," Professor Jacobson said.

One big savings could come from a revised parole policy, he said, returning fewer parolees to prison for minor infractions like being late for an appointment with a parole officer or failing a drug test. This would be particularly helpful in California, the state with the largest number of inmates and where almost two-thirds are in prison for parole violations.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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