Study Finds Disparity in Corrections Spending

By: - March 2, 2009 12:00 am

States spend seven times more money on prisons than on probation and parole, even though the vast majority of the 7.3 million people now under correctional supervision are not behind bars, according to the first detailed survey of state corrections spending since 2002.

Counting offenders on probation and parole, one in 31 U.S. adults is under some form of correctional supervision, including incarceration, according to the study , released Monday (March 2) by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States.

In 1982, 1 in 77 adults was under correctional supervision, the study said. It attributed the dramatic growth over the past three decades in large part to an expansion in the number of offenders granted probation or parole.

States and localities, not the federal government, supervise most of the nation’s criminals, including those on probation and parole.

The nonpartisan Pew Center on the States – funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the parent organization of – last year issued a report finding that, for the first time, one in 100 adults nationwide, or 2.3 million people, were behind bars.

The new report focuses on the more than 5 million people under probation or parole supervision, either because their crimes did not warrant incarceration or because they have been released after serving time. States, the Pew study contends, devote a disproportionately small amount of funding to the management of these offenders, when compared with what they spend on criminals currently behind bars – even taking into consideration the far greater costs of operating prisons.

Building and staffing prisons and providing inmates with food and health care “understandably costs more,” the study said, but “the difference in cost between institutional and community corrections … is huge.”

The 34 states that provided complete spending data for the study collectively poured $18.65 billion into prisons in fiscal 2008, while spending just $2.53 billion on probation and parole programs – a ratio of more than seven to one, the report found. The average daily cost of supervising someone on probation was $3.42 in fiscal 2008, the study said, compared with $78.95 for the cost of incarcerating an inmate.

Pew’s Adam Gelb, who helped produce the report, said in an interview that the states that provided full spending data offer “a very representative sample” of the national picture, encompassing all regions and both urban and rural areas.

One notable exception is California, which did not provide complete data.

The report comes as the budget crisis facing state governments has begun to force a re-evaluation of corrections policy in some states, driven by declining tax revenues, increasing incarceration costs and other priorities competing for state dollars, from health care to higher education.

The Democratic governors of at least four states – Kentucky, New York, Virginia, Wisconsin – recently have sought to save tens of millions of dollars by reducing the amount of time some prisoners spend behind bars (see related story: Govs’ Q & A: Rethinking prison time ).

Other states have negotiated bipartisan agreements focused on preventing recidivism, a major cause of crowded prisons and rising costs. According to federal statistics, more than half of those released from prison are back behind bars within three years.

The Pew study said Arizona, Kansas and Texas are states “already well under way” to improving their supervision of community-based offenders and working to reduce recidivism. A new Arizona program, for instance, allows those on probation to trim their sentences by 20 days for each month they meet court-ordered conditions.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, in an interview with Feb. 23, said his state and others are recognizing the need to focus more attention on managing offenders in the community. Doyle recently proposed classifying community-based offenders according to the risk they pose and allocating state resources accordingly.

“I think (all states) are feeling the burden of supervising a lot of people that maybe don’t need quite so much supervision, and not being able to supervise the people that do,” Doyle said.

Providing incentives to offenders, as Arizona is doing, and classifying them based on their risk, as Doyle has proposed, are among six recommendations in the Pew report to help states improve their probation and parole systems. Other recommendations include using electronic-monitoring technology and measuring the progress of new policy initiatives to ensure they achieve results.

Some probation and parole officials say that many of the study’s recommendations already are being followed and that they see no disproportionate spending on prisons versus community corrections.

“I don’t feel like there’s an imbalance or too much money going one way as opposed to going our way,” said Kevin Kempf, chief of community corrections in Idaho, where, according to the study, one in 18 adults is under correctional supervision and where nearly eight times more money is spent on prisons than on probation and parole.

Kempf said his probation officers typically see caseloads of 75 offenders – which he called “outstanding” in comparison to caseloads in other states – and that the state legislature and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) have placed sufficient emphasis on community corrections.

“When there’s a need for us and we ask for it, we typically get it,” he said.

But Martin Horn, the commissioner of New York City’s corrections and probation departments, said even caseloads of 75 offenders raise questions about the level of service probation and parole agencies realistically can provide.

“Think about an officer with 100 cases,” he said. “Even if he works 40 hours a week, that is less than a half hour per case per week. And that’s if he never takes time off.”

Horn said he agreed with the Pew study’s conclusion that community corrections has been underfunded, but he said policymakers cannot simply cut prison budgets and use the money to fund probation and parole instead. Improving community supervision, he said, would likely require new money, at least initially – a difficult prospect given the economy’s decline.

Horn identified another challenge. “Smart investments will pay for themselves, but they will pay for themselves five and 10 years out,” he said. That is a problem, he said, “because for politicians, their planning horizons are two years out at best.”

See Related Stories:

Corrections funds vanish in Madoff scandal (1/28/2009)

Strapped states eye prison savings (1/26/2009)

States want Second Chance Act funded (11/24/2008)

Report: States seeking prison solutions (1/24/2008)

States seek alternatives to more prisons (6/18/2007)

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.