According to a new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), halving the incarceration rates of nonviolent criminals would result in an estimated nationwide savings in corrections spending of $16.9 billion annually, with state and local governments receiving $14.8 billion, or nearly 88 percent of the savings. The national incarceration rate is currently about 240 percent higher than it was in 1980, despite no corresponding increase in crime rates. Currently, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, exceeding those of countries like Russia and Rwanda.
Another recent study , conducted by the Pew Center on the States, found that the state prison population across the country has declined for the first time in nearly 40 years. This is not the case, however, with West Virginia, where 50 of 55 counties experienced growth in inmate population, according to the latest Division of Corrections (WVDOC) Annual Report. In fact, West Virginia’s prison system is growing at the second highest rate in the country – 5.1 percent in the last year – and by far the highest rate among the surrounding states.
Elsewhere, many policymakers are thinking creatively about ways to save on corrections spending. For example:
These studies are timely not only because the current unstable economic climate has forced policymakers to think creatively about fiscal policy, but because the incarceration rates that have exploded in the last 20 years lack any corresponding increases in crime. The tremendous variation among the rates of prison population change from state to state further suggest the crucial role state policy plays in determining the size of the prison system, as well as the cost to the taxpayer.
Harsher state regulations often stem from the political desirability of being viewed as “tough on crime.” Thankfully, Governor Joe Manchin wants to be “smart on crime,” issuing a proposal in January to create an accelerated parole program for West Virginia’s least risky inmates. According to the Times West Virginian, the state’s prison system is designed for 5,000 inmates but holds 6,300 (and counting!), dumping the overflow into regional jails – now burdened themselves – that are not designed to be long-term facilities.
Should Manchin follow through on an accelerated parole program, the taxpayer savings could be considerable – especially if he supplements the program with improved parole supervision, rehabilitation programs, greater investment in and utilization of drug courts, etc. – and without compromising public safety. The average annual cost per inmate in 2009 was $25,651, according to the WVDOC report, so the 2,738 offenders (43.6 percent) incarcerated for nonviolent crimes cost taxpayers over $70 million per year. CEPR estimates that parole costs between $1,300 and $2,800 annually, so even using the most expensive estimate in that range, shifting half of West Virginia’s nonviolent offenders to parole could result in taxpayer savings of well over $30 million.
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