Prison Reforms Save Money

By · Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Ana Plascencia responded to an article I wrote about the need for work-release and study-release programs for those in prison. She recognized that due to the difficult economy, such prison reforms were unlikely to find funding. Ana asked my thoughts on how we could incorporate such prison reforms when our society had other priorities.

As I read Ana’s thoughtful perspective, I was still buoyed with hope from what I heard in President Obama’s speech before the two houses of Congress. During his address, he included two topics that encouraged me. One was the topic of wasteful government spending, and the other was the topic of using incentives to create a more education American populace.

President Obama said that while preparing the budget he would soon submit to Congress, a line-by-line analysis had already revealed $2 trillion worth of government programs that were not working. One of those failed programs that I hoped his leaders had uncovered was the waste that came from incorporating so many nonviolent offenders for such lengthy periods. Prison reforms do not have to require more funding. In fact, they can bring cuts that would result in less spending.

With wasteful costs for housing, food, medical treatment, supervision, and other expenses, taxpayers spend well over $10,000 per year for each prisoner they confine in a minimum-security camp. Yet administrators have classified minimum-security prisoners as posing no threat to society.

Rather than confining prisoners in camps, prison reforms could result in those prisoners serving their terms, or a portion of their terms, on home confinement. They could use electronic  monitoring devices as part of the sanction. While paying their own costs for subsistence, the prisoners could educate themselves or earn a living through legitimate employment. Or they could pay their sanctions with meaningful community-based services. These minimum-security camps do not serve the interests of society, as they are more like fitness centers than prisons. Anyone who is in a camp could be paying a more meaningful sanction through a community-based system at a far lower cost to the taxpayer.

I also appreciated the President’s emphasis on incentives to foster a more educated work force. I would submit that prison reforms should encourage prisoners to work toward earning freedom by educating themselves. Those who develop skills or credentials that can translate into contributing lives upon release ought to advance their release dates. Such programs would lower recidivism rates and lower costs for operating these bloated prison system.

I am convinced that effective prison reforms can make society safer. At the same time, they can lower taxpayer expenditures. Such a policy shift would not serve the interests of lobbyists who want a bigger prison system. But they would provide more resources for other American needs like education, health care, and social services.

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