No More Room, No More Money

Source: The Economist, May 21, 2009

State correction systems have exploded in recent decades. The Pew Centre on the States, a research outfit, reports that one in 100 Americans is incarcerated. One in 31 is in prison, on parole or on probation. This is expensive. Corrections have gobbled more and more of state budgets, at a faster pace than any government service except Medicaid. In 2008 spending on corrections was 303% greater than two decades earlier.

New laws, not more crime, are the main factor. Since the 1970s, when parole boards had wide discretion to release prisoners, states such as Wisconsin have set mandatory minimum sentences and applied baseball’s “three-strikes” rule to the national pastime of incarceration, often locking up repeat offenders for life. In the 1990s federal incentives prodded the states to adopt “truth in sentencing”, meaning that a court sentence would be completed in full, ending rewards for good behaviour behind bars. Mr Grams noted a change both in the time offenders spent at Columbia and in the prison’s “climate”, a euphemism for whether inmates behave well or abominably.

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