Marc L. Miller 1
Pundits and politicians have long debated the role of the criminal justice system and of particular crime policies in controlling crime. A little-noticed effect of some crime policies, in particular those that require substantial expenditures, is that they may shift the allocation of resources among different crime-fighting institutions, notably police, prosecutors, and prisons, and among strategies within and outside the criminal justice system, notably strategies focused on enforcement as opposed to those focused on crime prevention. Indeed, as particular crime policies become more and more expensive, they compete with other basic government expenditures, including those for such social services as education and health. Yet these other expenditures may have a greater, if more subtle, long-term impact on crime than that of any prison cell.
In this essay I consider some by-products of the twenty-year trend toward greater use of imprisonment. The essay starts with the unsurprising observations that imprisonment is an expensive policy option and that as prison populations have grown dramatically, prison budgets have grown too. I sketch in broad terms the growth of United States prison populations and the corresponding changes in prison budgets.
The essay makes four points that are perhaps less obvious.
First, it compares prison expenditures to other justice expenditures, both in the context of total United States Department of Justice budgets and in light of the increasing percentage of state justice budgets accounted for by corrections. As the percentage of justice budgets devoted to corrections increases, competition should increase between corrections and prosecution,