Is the Tide Finally Turning on Support for Mass Incarceration?
For the past 30 years or so, “lock ’em up” rhetoric has been the norm at the state and local level of discussion about criminal justice policy. (And this type of rhetoric is still quite prevalent: Here’s a somewhat alarmist editorial from the Tampa Tribune that begins — I kid you not — “Let’s hear a round of applause for prisons.” Moreover, check out the comments section of any local news article on prison or jail issues, and you will see a steady stream of “lock ’em up” sentiment.) Of course, no one is in favor of crime, but the notion that there might be valid strategies for punishing wrongdoers and protecting public safety other than mass incarceration — strategies that might even be more effective, less expensive, and more just — has often been characterized as a fringe view or one that is insufficiently “tough on crime”.
But recently, I have started to wonder if the tide of unquestioning support for mass incarceration is finally turning. Suddenly local politicians and commentators around the country seem willing to state openly that states simply can’t afford the costs of locking up so many of their citizens. I am curious to hear whether readers perceive the same shift in rhetoric. Of course, perhaps I shouldn’t be too optimistic, since rhetoric is one thing, and actually implementing policy change is another. Moreover, I wish it had not taken an economic crisis to force Americans to reconsider the wisdom of mass incarceration (although it is better than nothing). I hope that we will also begin to see more mainstream discussion of the human costs of mass incarceration. Otherwise, the next time the economy is doing well, states may be tempted to return to the old policies.
In any event, here’s a roundup of local commentary along these lines, from the past couple of days alone:
Amid the annual rounds of budget-cutting in Michigan government over the last decade, one agency has been spared the ax — the Department of Corrections. In fact, as spending in other areas has declined, the corrections budget has steadily grown and is now nearly $2 billion, which means that it accounts for a quarter of the state’s general fund budget.
With Michigan facing yet another huge budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year — $1.7 billion this time — that trend is unsustainable. Something has to give.
New Hampshire’s prison budget is out of control. During the last 10 years, the prison population has grown more than 30 percent and the budget has doubled. We now pay $33,000 a year, more than the cost of a year at UNH, to house each of our 2,900 prisoners.
“We can’t afford the high cost of incarceration. Period,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat and a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “The reality is that we, for years, have locked everybody up without any thought to the cost.”