Possible Budget Choices – Criminal Justice Costs

For the past 15 years we’ve been on a trend of increasing the number of incarcerated people. We now lead the world in the percentage of people in jail. It costs the state an average of about $30,000 per year to put someone in prison, plus all the costs of the courts and police/sheriff. Sometimes this makes a lot of sense, and sometimes it does not. The 2003 Washington State Legislature directed the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) to determine if there are changes to Washington’s sentencing structure that could reduce costs without endangering public safety. WSIPP is a non-partisan research agency that does this kind of scientific analysis of policy questions for us.

Here’s their conclusion: (full study here)

We find that some evidence-based programs can reduce crime, but others cannot. Per dollar of spending, several of the successful programs produce favorable returns in investment. Public policies incorporating these options can yield positive outcomes for Washington. We project the long-run effects of three example portfolios of  evidence-based options: a “current level” option as well as “moderate” and “aggressive” implementation portfolios.

We find that if Washington successfully implements a moderate-to-aggressive portfolio of evidence-based options, a significant level of future prison construction can be avoided, taxpayers can save about two billion dollars, and crime rates can be reduced.

This is necessarily a political activity. Competing editorial voices will weigh in. For example, John Carlson has an op-ed that ran in a variety of places decrying a bill that would “gut” the 3-strikes law. (Link here to Bellevue Reporter version.) Neal Pierce, a reasonably moderate voice, calls out for smarter thinking on community corrections as a way to save money. (Full article here.) Washington’s incarceration rate is significantly lower than the rest of the nation, but we should still look carefully at this. The Seattle Times weighs in in opposition to Carlson, but did print his op-ed. (Times Editorial here.) Full disclosure: Carlson was the prime force behind the 1993 initiative that put 3-strikes in place.

There will be a lot of noise about this, and I will get many letters on both sides of the issue. Getting to the right place, where we balance public safety with the costs of incarceration is too important to leave to pure political noise. Not wasting money is not being “soft on crime.” Letting too many people out because we’re not willing to pay the costs of the criminal justice system is equally silly. We should also make sure that when we consider the larger issues that affect the state we also consider the effects our decisions have on counties and their costs. We change the burden on them, but don’t give them the revenue options to deal with the costs we impose.

The world is a complicated place. It’s important that we not view it as just black and white. It’s not.