Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Growing Prison Costs Strain Budget; State Struggles to Fund a Rising Number of Inmates

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Growing Prison Costs Strain Budget; State Struggles to Fund a Rising Number of Inmates

Article excerpt


ATLANTA-The $21 billion budget currently awaiting Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature devotes $1.2 billion to the state's prison system.

If signed as is, 2009 will mark the third consecutive year taxpayers have footed a billion-dollar bill to fund the Georgia Department of Corrections, now the fifth-largest prison system in the nation with nearly 60,000 inmates and more than 140,000 probationers.

One in 15 Georgians is under correctional supervision, be it prison, parole or probation, which is far higher than the national average of one in 35, according to the Department of Corrections.

And prison costs in the state show few signs of slowing, observers say, increasing the likelihood that prisons will soon face increasing competition for state funding alongside education, transportation and social services.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute predicts offenders sentenced between now and 2015 may add about $10.8 billion in capital and operating costs to the prison system's budget in that time. That would push the prison budget past the $9.8 million the state currently spends on education.

While the rising costs have forced new approaches to the way the state punishes and rehabilitates inmates, corrections officials face the task of juggling the financial effects of longer sentences with the graying of the prison population, both of which push expenditures higher.

The situation is tricky for taxpayers.

Like many people, Bobby Parker, 71, of Augusta wants stiffer penalties for criminals. But he said he is already taxed too much for a system he believes is too lenient. The state's 27 percent recidivism rate is evidence of that, he said.

"A lot going on in this world nowadays - our justice system has allowed," Parker said.

Parker said prisoners should work off their debt to society, rather than fill prisons.

"I think they ought to be put on a chain gang and work it off," Parker said.

The advent of mandatory minimum sentences, an accompanying "two strikes and you're out" policy and more stringent parole guidelines enacted since the mid-1990s have created a surge in the state's prison population, with more convicts being put behind bars and remaining there longer.

The effect is that for every 18,000 prisoners headed out of prison each year, 20,000 take their place, said Paul Czachowski, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. The population behind bars is forecast to continue that trend in coming years, he said.

Increases in the number of inmates puts direct pressure on the cost of housing them.

State prisons have expanded capacity by more than 150 percent since 1990, according to the Department of Corrections.


One factor behind the mounting costs, and perhaps one of the greatest challenges in the future, is that baby boomers commit crimes, too. …

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