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The Silliness of Looking to Cut Prison Spending to Reduce the Debt

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In my last post, I argued that incarceration has been effective over the last generation in helping reduce crime, and thus in making America a safer and more peaceful place.  The present attack on "incarceration nation," I asserted, is the product largely of wishful thinking about how successful the alternatives to incarceration would be.  This was easy to demonstrate:  The crime rate in the Sixties and Seventies era of supposed "rehabilitation" skyrocketed, while in the last 20 years of sharply increased incarceration, it has plummeted, as these figures illustrate.

There is, however, another argument prominent on the anti-incarceration side  --  that prison costs too much.  The argument is that, with our national budget massively in the red, with over $16 trillion of debt already on the ledger and getting deeper in the hole every day, one effective way to save would be to trim prison spending.  The way to do this would be, of course, to release inmates, or just refuse to send them to prison to start with (or both).

Time for a fact check.  How much of the national budget actually goes to building and maintaining prisons?

See for yourself:

Did you find the slice of the pie labelled "Prison Spending"?  I didn't either.  That's because it's not there.

Indeed, the entire amount spent on crime, corrections and justice did not so much as merit a sliver.  Instead, it got lumped into the tiny wedge called "Government" which is just two percent of the budget (and which of course includes all manner of stuff beyond crime and justice spending, to say nothing of the small fraction of that devoted just to prisons).

Ahead of crime and justice spending were:

Social Security
Defense/Military
Medicare
Safety Net (Welfare)
Medicaid & CHIP
Interest on the Debt
Veterans
Food
Environment and Science
Housing
Transportation 
Health (the 1.7% given for that seems very low to me)
Education
International Affairs
.......and on and on.

Have you ever heard a single voice active in the anti-incarceration movement call for cutbacks in any of the massively more expensive domestic programs?  If any readers have, please let me know.  I sure haven't.

And what does that tell you?  It tells you that the cry to cut prison spending as a debt reduction tool is absurd.   It has nothing to do with debt reduction, about which the anti-incarceration lobby could care less.  It has to do with adding a makeweight argument to make their pre-existing agenda seem more palatable to the average taxpayer (or at least the average taxpayer who's not paying attention).

State budgets are a different subject, but it's beyond serious argument that we will not make an iota of progress towards balancing the national budget by putting criminals back on the street.  We'll balance it (if at all) by cutting spending where it occurs, to wit, in our out-of-control entitlement/welfare state.  The main thing we'll do by putting criminals back on the street is throw away a generation's worth of progress in making our country safer.


2 Comments

"State budgets are a different subject . . . "

Hah! Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

In FY12, Ohio's expenditures on Justice & Public Protection constituted 6.3% of total expenditures--more than transportation or higher education, and only slightly less than health and human services.

1. The feds dwarf everything else, as you know.

2. "Ohio's expenditures on Justice & Public Protection constituted 6.3% of total expenditures..."

But you certainly know that prisons are just a fraction of "Justice & Public Protection," so the 6.3% figure is misleadingly large.

3. But let's take it at face value anyway. What that means is that 93.7% of the state budget is for things OTHER THAN prisons (and whatever else gets lumped in with it).

Q: If you need to save big money, do you start in on what's costing you 93.7% of your budget, or do you dig into that 6.3%? If against all common sense the latter, should PD's bear some of the sacrifice too?

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