The Pew Center on the States this week issued the first survey on the expense of incarceration to appear in the past seven years.
“A survey of 34 states found that states spent an average of $29,000 a year onprisoners, compared with $1,250 on probationers and $2,750 on parolees. The study found that despite more spending on prisons, recidivism rates remained largely unchanged.
“Pew researchers say that as states trim services like education and health care, prison budgets are growing. Those priorities are misguided, the study says. “
The New York Times, March 3, 2009, p. A13.
The cost-benefit imbalance between prison and release may be compared to color correction in Photoshop® where all-black is on the left side of the graph and all-white is on the right. We should "adjust" our prisoner-disposition policy in a way that both imposes punishment and protects the public. Public policy should avoid the extremes that I would paraphrase as "lock-them-up" and "let-them-walk".
Excess emphasis on imprisonment and the out-sized influence of politicians, “powerful prison guard unions, service contracts, and high-profile sheriffs and police chiefs” tend to overload our prisons, which are on the left edge of the incarcerate-or-liberate spectrum. According to this new study, lengthening sentences and having more prisoners leaves us no safer.
In Photoshop®, the solution is adjusting the midpoint of the continuum between black and white gently to the right, in order to unpack the left side of the histogram. In prison budgets, by analogy, I believe the United States should spend less on putting people away and more on parole, probation and education.
Here is another metaphor: In great the river delta of humanity, crime is like a rivulet flowing in the wrong place. Instead of lifting out individuals by using a figurative thimble, the more productive approach is diverting the flow.