Crime is expensive. But so too is punishment. The state of Maryland, like the majority of states across the nation at the moment, is facing a period of slow economic growth and shrinking economic resources even as it continues to have to meet the needs of its citizens. This paper examines the effect on the state's overall budget of the cost of incarcerating prisoners.
The treatment of prisoners causes few legal problems for the government of a dictatorship. A government that refuses to acknowledge the human rights of even its law-abiding citizens is not likely to show too many qualms about shoving its criminals into overcrowded and unsafe prisons - or even to worry about whether the niceties of due process were considered in getting the person to prison to begin with. But the rule of constitutional law changes all that. Because we live in a country in which the rule of law is for the most part respected, the police, the court and prison officials - and the rest of us as well - must recognize prisoners are people who have broken the social contract. But still people like the rest of us. It is from this recognition of our common humanity that the belief in rehabilitation and the rights of prisoners to receive educational, vocational and other rehabilitative services arises.
Money spent on prisons in Maryland cannot be spent on school or parks or firefighters. This is a lesson that should be relatively easy to understand - but if there is a single truth in the state budgeting process - and this is the same regardless of which state is involved - it is that economics and politics are tightly bound to each other. A state budget may be math at the bottom, but it is always much more than math at every other level.
The 2003 fiscal year budget saw significant cuts in a number of state services, including:
6.7 million in cuts to the Maryland State Department of Education.
40 million cut to higher education (which represents a 20% cut to the budget of higher education, which constitutes only 71/2% of the state budget)
84 million to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
11.6 million to the Department of Human Resources
9.7 million to community colleges.
A million from the Maryland National Guard (http://www.washtimes.com/metro/20-4325r.htm).
The current budget for corrections in Maryland is over $900 million. It isn't that Maryland is charging
That's the corrections system, with a budget in Maryland of more than $900 million.
Over the past two decades, Maryland's state prison population has risen from 8,000 to 24,000 in 2001. The per capita rate of incarceration in Maryland during that same period grew from 183 to 422 per 100,000 inhabitants. The costs associated with that kind of prison growth are massive. During the 1980s and 1990s, Maryland's per capita state spending on corrections grew by 100%, four times the rate of increase in higher education spending.
The proponents of prison expansion wring their hands when confronted with these numbers and say it is the unavoidable cost we must pay to remain safe in our communities. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are several serious flaws in the view that large prison populations, and their associated costs, are the unavoidable price of safety in a modern society (http://www.cleanteam.info/JJREFORM.HTM).
Methodology: Examining the Scope of the Problem
States, like families, have limited budgets, and money spent on one type of service cannot then also be spent on something else. In Maryland, as in other states, a very high percentage of the state's money goes towards the cost of building prisons and incarcerating prisoners. The primary reason for this upswing in the costs of prison-building and incarceration in Maryland (again as in other states) is the increasing number of people sentenced to prison because of non-violent and often quite minor drug offenses. In order to understand how the state makes a certain monetary commitment to the prison system we have to understand a number of non-purely economic factors.
The current state administration in Maryland has been pushing for reduction in the level of incarceration of non-violent offenders with relatively minor drug charges, but the effects of this push on the criminal justice system (and so on the state's budget) have not as yet been dramatic. The state is still paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to convict and incarcerate people for crimes that most people would consider to be relatively minor.
A report released by the Justice Policy Institute on February 21, 2003, found that capital spending on Maryland prisons would be increasing by $92 million while30 of 54 state agencies are facing budget cuts. The report noted that in the last two decades the state's prison population has tripled - from 7,731 in 1980 to 23,752 at the end of 2001. The report found that 24% of the inmates in Maryland's prisons are drug offenders and that nonviolent offenders are languishing behind bars as the number of prisoners paroled each year has fallen by29%. Racial unfairness in the Maryland justice system was highlighted as 81% of all drug offenders are African-American even though they are only 28% of Maryland's population (http://188.8.131.52/search?q=cache:5haT4coRUqgJ:www.mdgreens.org/montgomery/pdf/schoolsnotprisons.pdf+maryland+state+budget+prison&hl=en&ie=UTF-8).
The emphasis on incarcerating those who are guilty of drug-related infractions (in comparison, for example, to those who are guilty of highly violent crimes) is striking.
Although the prison population nationally has increased 500% during the past 25 years, since 1980 the number of violent offenders in prisons has doubled, while the number of nonviolent offenders has tripled and the number of drug offenders has increased 11-fold.
According to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the most common offense for which prisoners are incarcerated in Maryland is "drug abuse," which accounts for nearly one in four prisoners (http://www.cleanteam.info/JJREFORM.HTM).
This is reflected in the following graph: (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/statelocal/md/md.pdf)
Of course, we should note here that drug use is not necessarily trivial and certainly can be dangerous, as the following chart shows. However, the majority of arrests for drug offenses in Maryland involved the possession of small amounts of marijuana, which the state does not record as having caused any deaths during recent years: (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/statelocal/md/md.pdf)
The overall cost of incarcerating the state's prison population is staggering, with the great majority of the funding for the prison system coming from that state's general budget, in other words, reducing money that could in fact be used on a number of other different types of programs: (http://mlis.state.md.us/2003RS/budget_docs/All/Operating/Q00_-_DPSCS_Overview.pdf)
When these percentages are translated into actual figures, the picture is even more dramatic. These figures make it clear that Maryland, like other states, must seek ways to control prison costs if it is to be able to continue to offer the entire range of services that a state should be able to offer to its residents. (http://mlis.state.md.us/2003RS/budget_docs/All/Operating/Q00_-_DPSCS_Overview.pdf)
The cost for building new prisons and housing more prisoners is only likely to go up in Maryland given that the number of arrests are continuing to climb each year. Although the rate of violent crimes is falling, the number of arrests and prisoners continues to rise. (http://mlis.state.md.us/2003RS/budget_docs/All/Operating/Q00_-_DPSCS_Overview.pdf)
Increasingly Crowded Prisons
Inhumane jails are relatively cheap - or at least certainly cheaper - than are less humane ones. The single most important reason for this is that the less politicians, prison officials (and the public) care about the welfare of prisoners, the more prisoners can be housed in a single facility. Maryland's prisons, like those of other states, are suffering from overcrowding. Prison officials are investigating a number of possible programs to reduce the number of inmates in the system and thus reduce the cost to the state.
This is an increasingly important budgetary concern because the prison population is not only growing but it is also aging. This "aging" of the prison population in some measure mirrors the aging of the population as a whole. However, it also reflects an increase in the number of life sentences that are handed down as a part of the growing conservatism of sentencing trends in Maryland and in the United States in general.
This chart suggests one of the reasons why the prison population is aging is the increasing number of prisoners who have been given life sentences, many of them because of Maryland's three-strikes law:
As is the case in other states with similar laws, Maryland is suffering from the unintended consequences of three-strikes legislation, which has dramatically increased the prison population and so the costs to taxpayers:
Despite the great support and legislation of "three strikes" laws that began in 1993, culminating with the first enactment by California in 1994, many critics feel that this law has not been all…