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Burgeoning prison populations strain state budgets

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Snapshot for March 12, 2008.

Burgeoning prison populations strain state budgets

by Liana Fox

A recent study released by the Pew Center on the States examines the rapid growth of the U.S. prison population, which has tripled over the past 20 years. The United States now holds the distinction of imprisoning more of its own citizens, both in total number and share of the adult population, than any other country in the world. In 2007, the United States had a record-breaking one out of every 100 adults in prison. Policy changes in sentencing and parole revocation, rather than increases in crime, have largely driven the increase in incarceration rates.

States shoulder the vast majority of the costs associated with these policies. While states struggle with gaping budget shortfalls (see the recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), incarceration rates and costs continue to escalate, consuming growing portions of state general funds. As corrections costs increase, states are forced to make cuts in other programs, such as transportation and education. In the past 20 years, total state spending on higher education has increased 21% (from $60.3 billion to $72.9 billion, in 2007 dollars), while corrections spending has more than doubled, increasing 127% (from $19.4 billion to $44.1 billion). Since 1997, however, the growth in corrections spending has outpaced higher education by only 18 percentage points, compared with the previous gap of 66 percentage points.

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Growth in state spending on corrections and higher education, 1987-2007

Since 1987, spending on corrections outpaced that for higher education in every state except Alabama and Virginia. (For a table with state-by-state data, click here.[PDF]) Several states (Connecticut, Vermont, Michigan, and Oregon) actually spend more on incarceration than they do on higher education. Without reform in these policies, states will face accelerating fiscal problems.

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