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Billions and Billions Spent on the Big House

While editing Julia Griffin's interview with Marian Wright Edelman last month, we cast about trying to find a figure for what the United States spends on its incarceration industry each year.

No authoritative recent figure jumped out, but had we waited a few days, a most authoritative figure would have appeared: $47.4 billion by states from their general funds, for a 50-state total of $52 billion.

That's the tally from the Pew Center on the States from their Public Safety Performance Report, which came out today. Even those figures aren't measuring the entire amount spent on corrections, since the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget ($5.5 billion) isn't included, nor are county-level-and-below efforts. Pew puts the total at $68 billion, citing Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers that are a little bit old. These aren't bailout figures — although we're sure AIG might like a cut — but it it does represent a drumbeat of spending every year that's not going away even when happy days genuinely are here again.

To quote Wright Edelman:

"Well, if we don't stop the growing incarceration and criminalization of America — we're the world's leading jailer — it's going to be a disaster. It really is becoming the American apartheid. We're expending — wasting in my view — but spending ($60 billion to $70 billion) a year on our prison system. It's a larger employer than General Motors, Wal-Mart or Ford, and states are stupidly spending three times more per prisoner than a school pupil, that's a pretty dumb investment policy."

While Wright Edelman might be assumed to speak with a touch of hyperbole, Pew suggests otherwise. Prison spending (again, at the state level) has vaulted 303 percent in the 20 years ending at fiscal year 2008.

As Pew reports:

"This growth rate outpaced budget increases for nearly all other essential government services tracked over the same period, from elementary and secondary education (205 percent) to transportation (82 percent), higher education (125 percent) and public assistance (9 percent). Only Medicaid spending grew faster than spending on corrections, increasing 492 percent in the last two decades."

Of course, neither Wright Edelman nor Pew are primarily focused on the money — even as the gist of the report examines cheaper and presumably smarter ways to deal with crime. Instead, their mantra might better be labeled "show me the people." Pew estimates that one in 31 is "under correctional control." (The report itself is named One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.

To cherry-pick from a press release accompanying the report:

"A close examination of the most recent U.S. Department of Justice data (2006) found that while one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, the figure is one in nine for black males in that age group. Men are still roughly 13 times more likely to be incarcerated, but the female population is expanding at a far brisker pace. For black women in their mid- to late-30s, the incarceration rate also has hit the one-in-100 mark. In addition, one in every 53 adults in their 20s is behind bars; the rate for those over 55 is one in 837."

Keep in mind that phrase "under correctional control." The growth industry in corrections isn't always lock-ups; it's parole and probation. For one thing, to return to dollars and cents, Pew says it's cheaper: "On average, the daily cost of supervising a probationer in fiscal 2008 was $3.42; the average daily cost of a prison inmate, $78.95, is more than 20 times as high."

We recommend downloading the whole report. It's written in English, and it's loaded with eye-popping figures.