Prison spending and other priorities

Nicholas Kristof compares spending on prisons to other priorities:

  • The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.
  • California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.
  • For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared.
  • One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project.

Based on the NPR article to which I linked last week, I’d guess that much of this wasteful spending, at least in California and similar states, comes at the behest of the prison workers union. Unions are an easy target, but there’s evidence to support their harm here.

All this points to a major problem with government spending: it’s difficult to link to efficiency. Education spending has doubled since the 70’s, but achievement rates have fallen. Prison spending has obviously risen drastically, but by many measures prisons aren’t any more effective.

Another problem is that when programs aren’t found to be efficient or effective, the solution is usually… more spending.