Are prisons worth the cost even though they reduce crime?
Nearly two years ago, Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told the [Cleveland] Plain-Dealer he’d quit before allowing the construction of a new prison in Ohio.
“Whatever my term (as director) is going to be, I would expect that our count will be less the day I leave than it is today,” he said.
In the past 25 years, Ohio’s prison population has more than doubled, jumping from 24,750 in 1988 to more than 50,000 as of this year, according to the corrections department. The state’s 27 prisons were built to house about 38,500 inmates.
In 2011, Ohio enacted comprehensive reforms to the sentencing and corrections system. The law created a statewide system of risk and needs assessments to ensure that community supervision and treatment resources are used to their maximum effectiveness on the most appropriate offenders.
The reforms were projected to save taxpayers $46 million by 2015. The savings derived from a reduction in expected prison growth would enable policymakers to invest $20 million into improved community supervision, according to The Pew Center on the States.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich said at the time, “I get emotional about this because I think the passage of this bill and the changing of this law is going to result in the saving of many, many lives, maybe even thousands, before all is said and done.”
The reforms have not panned out. Now Mohr is calling for more compassion toward wrongdoers as he continues a push to reduce the state’s inmate population.
‘Sense of forgiveness’
“Our hearts need to be softened to some degree,” said Mohr. “We have to think about the sense of forgiveness.” A cynical observer might say this is more about the bottom line than holding the line on punishment.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, when Mohr started his prison career 41 years ago, Ohio had 8,300 inmates in seven prisons. The state’s incarceration rate was 5.3 per 100,000 citizens, compared with its current rate of 68.1 per 100,000.
How did Ohio – and nearly every other state – get wrapped up in this unsustainable cycle of over criminalization and draconian punishment? The tough-on-crime approach to public safety seems to have paralleled the unprecedented decline in violent crime.
Over the past 25 years, the tide of crime and violence seemed to simply recede, wrote Inimal M. Chettiar in The Atlantic. Crime is about half of what it was at its peak in 1991. Violent crime plummeted 51 percent. Property crime fell 43 percent. Homicides are down 54 percent. America across the board is a safer place than it was a quarter century ago.
Has incarceration contributed to the decline in crime?
The consensus among researchers is that mass incarceration accounted for about 10 to 20 percent of the overall decline in crime since 1992. “If you did a thought experiment, let’s add a million people to the prison system, and let’s suppose 1 percent of them are really serious habitual offenders who commit 50 crimes per year, that’s a reduction of half a million crimes,” John Roman of The Urban Institute told The Marshall Project. “Whether the destruction of communities associated with mass incarceration is worth it? That’s a completely different question.”
The National Research Council has said that the cost, financial and otherwise, is not worth the reduction in crime.
After a comprehensive review of data the council concluded that the costs of the current rate of incarceration outweigh the benefits. The council recommended that federal and state policymakers re-examine policies requiring mandatory and long sentences, as well as take steps to improve prison conditions and to reduce unnecessary harm to the families and communities of those incarcerated.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino)