Sunday, December 21, 2008

Good building, bad building

Guest essay by Eric Lotke*

China has opened a new subway system every year for the past six years. The U.S. has opened 45 new prisons and jails. Who's setting up to lead in the 21st century?

"Expanding prisons mean more jobs," explained the Fayetteville Observer over the summer.

The rural North Carolina community was celebrating the $19 million expansion of a $90 million prison that opened in 2003 and immediately filled to capacity. Such growth is a boon for rural, economically distressed counties. "Prison jobs bring added payroll, boost housing markets and draw new retail customers to poor parts of the state," observed the Observer.

The good news is that public investment can work. The bad news is that better choices must be made. We need to distinguish between prisons for crime control and prisons as a jobs program, between building for the future and building for the past.

  • "This is the biggest thing to happen to Stewart County since I've been here," said the chair of the county board when the private, for-profit Corrections Corporation of America opened a new 1,524 person detention center. "Everything's been leaving rather than coming in the 10 years I've been here. The biggest thing this will do is provide jobs for the county and the area."
  • "Push state to build prison here," editorialized the Altoona Mirror in central Pennsylvania, three weeks before the election. "What would the area do to obtain 600 well-paying jobs in what could be termed a recession-proof industry? It's not a rhetorical question. Those jobs could happen. But it's important that our local and state leaders don't drop the ball."
President-elect Barack Obama is planning a massive new public works program. He wants to employ 2.5 million people rebuilding our roads and schools and bridges. That’s great. It's more than great. We need the projects, we need the jobs, and the proposal is on the order of magnitude of the problem.

Part of the program could be a reconsideration of the role prisons play in our rural economy. That role seems to have taken on a life of its own.

"When folks here heard the governor wanted to close the 137-year-old Pontiac Correctional Center, sucking hundreds of jobs from the area, they mobilized in a way that only small towns can. They held rallies and a parade. Streets were lined with blue-and-white 'Save Our Prison' signs and residents were outfitted in T-shirts to match." The local ABC news affiliate described it as "a struggle for their economic lives," as the state considered closing the town's second-largest employer to help fill a $700 million hole in the state budget.

States are truly struggling. Forty-one states have already reported budget problems for the current or upcoming fiscal year, and it's likely to get worse. States are starting to cut benefits and services ranging from health care to public schools and early childhood education.
But one budget item is never questioned: prisons.

Even as states spend nearly $50 billion on prisons every year and counties spend over $20 billion on jails, we build additional locked capacity. Even with U.S. incarceration rates at seven times historical and international norms, we build. Even as crime continues on its 15-year descent to levels not seen in 40 years, we find money to build even more.

The sacrifices we make to build these prisons are astonishing. Between 1987 and 2007, state spending on prisons increased by 40 percent (as a percent of the general fund). State spending on higher education decreased by 30 percent. We are financing our prisons by cutting our colleges.

We continue to build even though prisons are often disappointing for economic development. The best jobs go to people from out of town, and dollars spent on prisons have little "multiplier" effect. They don't generate future additional dollars of economic activity, as do dollars spent on transportation, schools and so forth. Every dollar invested in highway construction generates $2.50 of gross domestic product in the short term. Raising teacher wages by 10 percent is associated with a 5 percent decrease in drop-out rates. But still we shortchange our schools and other rural enterprise, and build new prisons.

The solution is to recognize that prisons have an economic logic of their own. The Pentagon budget is understood as a combination of military necessity and commercial interests. We need to understand the appeal prisons offer to struggling rural communities in the same way.

The challenge is to break the link between prison as industry and prison as crime control. The challenge is to show a way out for governors and legislators who want to reduce the burden of the corrections budget but genuinely cannot because of the immediate and legitimate trouble it causes to their constituencies.

HERE'S HOW: As our new federal leaders develop plans for stimulus and infrastructure investment, they should self-consciously direct resources to break the link between prisons and the dependent rural economies. They should create a grant program to help states transition from prison economies to more productive uses.

People are ready for this kind of change. Way back in 1999, when there were half a million fewer people in American prisons and jails, John DiIulio, one of the main movers behind the prison explosion, said we had reached a point of diminishing returns. But we can’t change course; the transition costs are too high:
  • Drug treatment and prevention programs are cheaper in the long run, but they cost money up front to start.
  • Cost savings to some are job losses to others. Especially when the programs go to scale and entire prisons are shut down or construction projects avoided. What should people do in the interim?
That's where federal assistance can come in. Part of the infrastructure/investment/stimulus money can be directed to cover transitional costs out of the prison economy. A few billion dollars of federal money in the short term can help states break the prison hammerlock, and free them to redirect tens of billions of state dollars to other purposes – from schools to roads to hospitals.

That's the proposal: A federal grant program that helps states manage transitional costs in the short run. Much like the federal VOI/TIS Justice Department grant program helped build prisons in the 1990s, a transition grant program can help to unbuild them in the 2000s (perhaps best administered by the Commerce Department). Let the laboratories of democracy experiment over techniques, but the federal government can help ease the transition.

It's a modest investment for the federal government that can yield substantial dividends quickly. But it needs to be consciously identified as a goal. Left alone the prison autopilot will continue to rise.

*This well-researched essay (check out some of the many embedded links for more) is reprinted from the Campaign for America's Future with the written permission of the author. Eric Lotke, an attorney, is Research Director at the Campaign for America's Future. Previously he served as Policy Director at the Justice Policy Institute, and was a Soros Foundation Senior Justice Fellow. He has authored path-breaking research on the criminal justice system, including patterns of juvenile homicide, the demographics of incarceration, and the political and financial consequences of the U.S. Census Bureau counting people in prison where they are confined rather than their original homes. More on his impressive background and good works is here.

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