August 13, 2007
The cost

Here's a fun statistic for you, courtesy of this Chron review of a couple of crime-related books.

The threat of doing time in a miserable place seems not to deter crime, because the United States leads the world in mass incarceration, rivaled only by China. This country is on a prison jag unprecedented in history, writes Sasha Abramsky in American Furies, which is aptly subtitled: "Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment." Among his most chilling examples is the 20-year sentence meted out to Albert Speer during the Nuremberg trials, a sentence then ranked behind only life without parole or death. Today, more than 300,000 Americans are serving sentences of 20 years, many of them for drug convictions and other nonviolent crimes.

As the state with the largest inmate population after California, Texas figures prominently in Abramsky's condemnation of the effects of mass incarceration. Many of his most dismaying illustrations are drawn from Texas. Our state imprisons close to 160,000 people, a disproportionate number of them black and brown, and the numbers and the sentences keep growing.

Sometime during the 1970s, public officials came to believe that prisons can't rehabilitate and that building more prisons and warehousing inmates was the solution. In the 1990s the state Legislature funded billions of dollars' worth of new prisons, and many small Texas towns competed for them, seeing them as economic engines for the local economy. Frightened by stories of teenage superpredators, Texans also expanded youth prisons. Abandoning many of its educational and drug-rehabilitation programs, the prison system changed its name from Texas Department of Corrections to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

If you divide the Texas prison system's annual budget by the number of inmates, you find that each inmate costs taxpayers $35,000 a year. And there's no sign that Texas has reached its limit. Our parole system is fine-tuned to keep the prisons so full that more will have to be built.

Thirty-five grand per inmate per year. For that kind of money, you could send them all to Rice. I daresay you'd get better outcomes in most cases, too.

Seriously, thirty-five grand per inmate per year. How big a property tax cut do you think we could afford if we could figure out a way to spend that money on fewer inmates? Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone like me or Grits bemoan another one of Governor Perry's shortsighted probation reform vetoes.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 13, 2007 to Crime and Punishment

Sounds like a plan! Let's start with all the guys on death row. That would really liven things up on University Blvd!

Posted by: G-Man on August 13, 2007 1:32 PM