Crime Costs: Tough-on-Crime Laws Impose a Steep Sentence on State Budgets

By Lawrence, Alison | State Legislatures, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Crime Costs: Tough-on-Crime Laws Impose a Steep Sentence on State Budgets


Lawrence, Alison, State Legislatures


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The United States has the highest incarceration rate in world. One in every 100 adults is in a prison or jail. The country even has more people in prison or jail than China, the world's most populous nation.

This startling figure follows several decades of rapid growth in state prison populations, and it is even more jarring in 2009, when state budgets are buckling under the weight of the nation's economic downturn.

Of the 2.3 million people in prison or jail in this country, young people of color have the highest incarceration rates, according to the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. In 2006, one in nine black males between 20 and 34 years old was in prison or jail, while the average for all men in that age group was one in 30.

STATES' RATES VARY

Some states are seeing extraordinary prison population growth. Between 2000 and 2005, Idaho's prison population increased by a little more than 50 percent, the highest growth rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. North Dakota and New Mexico round out the top three with 42 percent and 39.3 percent growth, respectively.

During the same period, however, five states saw a decrease in the number of prisoners: Wyoming's population decreased by 35 percent, New York by 11.2 percent, and New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland all had single digit decreases.

Dramatic differences in state prison growth rates highlight the critical role played by state law and policy. Much of the prison boom over the past quarter century is the result of policies and practices that imprison more offenders and keep them behind bars for longer periods of time. Another source of the growth has been "technical violators," people on probation or parole who have been sent back to prison for breaking the rules of their community supervision.

BUDGET STRAIN

In fiscal year 2008, nearly one in every 18 state general fund dollars was spent on corrections, according to NCSL fiscal data. …

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