Prisons — Americans are spending less and getting more

Life is getting safer all the time. Statistics from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show the crime rate nationwide continues to drop, for the most part. And along with that, the amount of money states are paying for prisons is dropping, as well.

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The figures were compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts as part of its public safety performance project.

That’s quite a switch from a few years ago when states were throwing people into prison as fast as they could under the theory that if people who were inclined to commit crimes were off the street, crime rates would go down. In fact, crime rates have gone down. Lately, however, prison population has declined, as well, and crime has not enjoyed a resurgence.

What in the name of the Birdman of Alcatraz is going on here? I thought prison was where society sent troubled young people so they could be taught how to become expert criminals. And if they got caught three times, they would be called out on a third strike and sent up the river for the rest of their lives.

Turns out that is old-fashioned thinking. States today are finding ways to effectively deal with bad boys and girls without forcing them into an unwanted relationship with a cellblock captain.

The Pew study identifies three factors that are reducing what states pay for prisons. One of them, perhaps surprisingly, has to do with spending money on treatment and diversion rather than on building new cells. Texas stopped building prisons and instead spent $241 million in these programs. Since 2007, the state has seen a 39 percent drop in the prisoners who fail at parole, crime has dropped to levels not seen since hippies roamed the earth (even if they never roamed in Texas) and taxpayers saved $3 billion in unspent prison costs.

Texas and other states find it more effective to shorten prison sentences for lesser offenses and steer people toward programs rather than hard time.

We used to call that “coddling.” We probably still would if the crime rate was rising.

The second factor has to do with strong public support. People want low-level offenders to stay out of prison because they don’t want to pay for them to be there. Even conservatives seem to be onboard with that.

Third, states are using actual research to drive the kinds of alternatives offered to inmates. Things like “cognitive-behavioral therapies that improve impulse control,” with tough consequences for those who violate rules and rewards for those who do well, seem to work.

In 2012, California housed 26 percent fewer prisoners than it did in 2007, the Pew study found. Its crime rate also fell by 11 percent during that time. That led the nation. However, 14 other states saw an inmate population drop of 10 percent or more during the same time. Only 15 states increased their prison populations, and most of them also saw a reduction in crime.

Utah’s crime rate fell 15 percent, but its prison population stayed the same. But now the state is looking seriously at building a new prison and closing its old facility in suburban Salt Lake City.

The question is, will it rely more on treatment, diversion and “impulse control” so that it doesn’t need to make the new one as big?

Categories: Crime, Utah issues

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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