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Cost Effectiveness of Imprisonment versus Rehabilitation

Incarceration in the United States has, in the last 20 years, come under scrutiny for being too costly to taxpayers. Comprehensive and reliable studies have shown rehabilitation to be a less costly and more practical approach to coping with offenders. In a series of reports entitled “Locked Up: Corrections Policy in New Hampshire,” and “Options for Reducing the Prison Population and the Cost of Incarceration,” by Richard A. Minard, Jr., Co-Executive Director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy, written back in February of 2004, there are some startling statistics revealed about the costs associated with incarceration. There are also some shocking revelations about why corrections reform is so difficult to accomplish. The consensus remains that there are too many players in the game and, regardless of the costs to taxpayers; it is far too profitable in other sectors to make any changes.

First, let us take a look at the costs associated with jailing and imprisonment. For example, according to the Huffington Post, as of 2010 in California the State spends a dime out of every state dollar on prisons which is in excess of $10.4 billion dollars for 170,000 plus inmates. In effect, that accounts for just over $45,000 per year, per inmate. In comparison, the state spends only an average of just over $9,000 per student. The recidivism rate (or those inmates who are paroled that return to jail within the first twelve months after release) in California is an alarming 57%. There is a population of just over 32 million people in California. According to the Washington Post, between the years of 1982 and 2000 (less than 20 years), prison population growth was over 500%, and 23 new prisons were built. To put that in perspective, between the years of 1852 and 1964 (112 years), only 16 prisons were constructed.

In New Hampshire, with a population of just under 1.5 million people, less than 10% of the population of California, has some alarming statistics when it comes to corrections itself. Between the years of 1981 and 2003, the prison population in New Hampshire swelled by over 600%, and spending followed. In comparison, the State population grew by only 35% in the same time period. Therefore, the same trend was repeated all across the country. In New Hampshire, these mirrored growths are largely driven by two phenomena. In 1982, the legislature increased the length of time offenders must serve for their crimes, and the Department of Corrections as well as the Parole Board elected to re-incarcerate hundreds of probation and parole violators each year. It is largely for the similar reasons that we see the same growth and spending trends nationwide. The easy explanation for these decisions would drive any reasonable person to assume that increases in crime are to blame, but that is most certainly not the case.

According to the Department of Corrections annual reports, the number of people admitted to state prison for new crimes peaked in fiscal year 1994. The number of inmates admitted for new crimes in fiscal year 2003 was 24% lower than the peak in 1994. When one observes the admissions statistics, it becomes clear that probation and parole violations have dominated as the reason for new admissions. In fiscal year 2003, 49% of all admissions to the state prison were for probation and parole violations, and these violators made up nearly 30% of the total inmate population. There are only four prisons in the State of New Hampshire, and therefore any increase to the inmate population will no doubt contribute to pressure on expanding existing facilities and spending. This was displayed when the Northern Correctional Facility in Berlin, NH, opened in 1999 with 500 beds. Even with this addition, the system was soon at or above capacity.

In response to these statistics, the Department of Corrections has rejected an initiative calling for a “spend to save” approach, and instead has taken aggressive steps to reduce its spending immediately without reducing staffing or supervision at the prisons or in field services. As such, it has made deep program cuts, particularly in education and prison industries. It has also eliminated a large amount of the substance abuse programs, including care for parole violators. This approach clearly leaves offenders less well prepared to acquire employment once they have been released and it also leaves inmates with nothing productive to do while incarcerated which in turn will entice destructive, inappropriate, and criminal behavior. Finding cost effective alternatives to helping parolees succeed is clearly a significant step in reducing the correctional budget both on the short term and the long term, and in the middle of 2003 a $1.8 million re-entry pilot program focused on the Manchester, NH area was established. This pilot called for deploying a staff of nine people, but a hiring freeze in the same time period prevented the hiring of these employees. In the following 18 months, the only accomplishment the department had was to purchase a number of computers for staff it hadn’t even hired.

According to the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy, in 2003 the marginal cost of housing a single inmate is approximately $5,791 per year. This number includes food, clothing, medical care, and some programming. If inmates are admitted or released, the only changes in cost to the prison are these marginal costs. Should the prison have to hire or fire officers due to increases or decreases of inmates, at a cost or savings of approximately $9,143 per inmate, the marginal cost is approximately $14,934 per inmate. Yet, the department’s annual report for fiscal year 2002 concluded that the cost of incarceration per inmate was $24,866. Again in fiscal year 2003, the calculation was repeated, and it was found that the cost per inmate was $25,341. In contrast again, the cost of keeping an inmate at the halfway houses in 2003 was only $11,519. None of these costs accommodate for the capital costs the state continues to pay for the Berlin and Laconia facilities.
In the year 1991, burglary had become the most common reason for admission to prison in New Hampshire. Clearly, we have shown that parole violations have since dwarfed all other reasons. The most interesting fact is that as crime rates began to decline in 1994 along with the number of parole violations for new crimes, the number technical violations began to rise tremendously. It is difficult to not develop the notion that, without duplicitous technical violations, the prison populations would be far less than they are today.

In the ten year period between 1999 and 2009, New Hampshire boasted a low and stable crime rate, which has been fairly typical of the state throughout its history. Despite this, the prison population increased 31%, and spending on corrections nearly doubled to more than $100 million. Recidivism in the state has been consistently rising over the last 20 years, finally pushing the state recidivism rate from 40% to 51%, and above the national average. Just in the 9 year period between the year 2000, and the year 2009, parole revocations increased from 35% to 43% of admissions. Again in 2009, technical violations for which there was no new offense committed, parole and probation together accounted for 57% of all admissions to prison. To break it down, 75% of revocations due to technical violations involved parolees who had used drugs or alcohol, and 41% had failed to access or complete a mental health or behavioral treatment program. Yet again in 2009, 22% of those imprisoned were being held beyond their minimum sentence date. The majority of these inmates were being held for failing to complete prison programs or for misconduct while incarcerated. This amounted to an average of serving an extra 500 days per sentence, at an estimated cost of $20 million to taxpayers.

If we take a closer look at the 317 people from earlier, 92% were men and 8% were women. Most had spent just shy of ten months outside of prison prior to being arrested, but the average time before re-incarceration was just six months. Less than one-third of those violated were for new crimes, and as proof to the contrary that parolees end up back in prison for new crimes, only 15% of all those paroled were for new crimes. Breaking it down even further, among the male violators, about 38% of those arrested (or approximately 108 people) had been charged with a new felony, and 62% (or approximately 67 people) with a misdemeanor or violation.

For the women violators, only 4% (or just one person) was charged with a felony, and 17% (or approximately 4 people) with a misdemeanor or violation. The data is also very clear that those who are originally imprisoned for being a habitual offender are far more likely to be rearrested for a new felony than any other category. About 32% of habitual offenders whose parole had been revoked were arrested for new felonies, while about 12% of those who had been originally incarcerated for drugs and just 4% for sex offenses. It appears to me that the low rate of new arrests for sex offenders seems somewhat divergent to the “plague” of sex offenses that the media would have the public believe, as the media continues to generate ratings by focusing on a particularly easy target with civil unrest towards sexual predators and pedophiles. For arguments sake, the data seems clear that alcohol and drugs is the largest contributor to parole violations to date. A total of 93% of all violators had used both alcohol and other drugs, and had been violated for reasons specifically related to such usage without incurring a new offense, which signifies having been violated for technical reasons.

Each year the state typically makes increases to the lengths of sentences for certain crimes, and the cost is clear through an easy calculation. The true cost to the state per inmate is approximately $8,000 per year. When adding time to sentences, each year the formula calls to double the total sentences. For example, if you sentence two individuals to a 10 year sentence with an additional 5 years to account for legislation, you have to double the number to 4 sentences the following year and every year thereafter. Therefore, the first year would be $16,000, the second $32,000, the third $64,000, and so on. This formula plateaus in the tenth year at $160,000 per year, for a total cost over 15 years at $1,680,000. Considering this expense, if we were to release them after 10 years with mandatory rehabilitation at personal cost, the number reduces to $880,000, a savings just shy of $1 million to the taxpayers. The calculation only applies to 20 inmates, consider this applied to the over 3,500 inmates in New Hampshire. This does not calculate the revenue from reduced operating costs at the prisons, decreased prison populations, and additional tax revenue on the increased income for local businesses, mental health clinics and behavioral service facilities. In conclusion, this alone seems to maintain the argument that rehabilitation is the correct route to take in order to cope with most offenders.

Thompson, Don. “California Budget Four Months Late” Huffington Post Los Angeles 29 September 2010

Richburg, Keith B., Surdin, Ashley. “Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates Early” Washington Post 5 May 2008

Gilmore, Ruth. Golden Gulag. Berkley: University of California Press, 2006.

Minard, Jr., Richard A. “Locked Up: Corrections Policy in New Hampshire” New Hampshire Center for Public Policy. February 2004.

Minard, Jr., Richard A. “Options for Reducing the Prison Population and Cost of Incarceration” New Hampshire Center for Public Policy. February 2004

Justice Reinvestment. “Implementing the Strategy” Council of State Governments Justice Center. 1 January 2010

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