Thursday, April 28, 2011

Proposed Corrections Budget Squeeze May Free More Violent Criminals

With the United States struggling to recover from a sluggish economy, many state legislators are finding it necessary to exploit every trick and loophole in the book to balance their 2012 operating budgets. Aside from trying politically savvy accounting gimmicks and feats of legerdemain, legislators are applying a scalpel to every line item on their state spreadsheets to exact revenge on budgets that they believe are bloated with bureaucracy. The same can be said for the Minnesota Legislature. Among the proposed revenue and savings measures the Republican-controlled House and Senate are proposing, the scariest is perhaps the budget slashing to the Department of Corrections (for the stupidest proposal, see Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa’s proposal to harvest black walnut trees from Minnesota state parks[1]).

House Public Safety Chairman Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, whose district does not include any correctional institutions, has proposed cutting $26 million from the $465 million 2011 budget on which the Minnesota Department of Corrections operates its eight adult prisons, two juvenile detention centers and its probation and parole programs.

Is this a good idea? Already Minnesota’s Corrections Department spends a relatively small percentage of their general fund on corrections, ranking near the bottom of the list.[2] And since 2002, the state has reduced the department’s operating budget by $109 million, despite a swell in the prison population (from 6,946 to 9,650).[3]

In terms of budget size, Minnesota compares handsomely with our neighbors to the east, with the Badger State spending more than two times what Minnesota spends. To understand how Minnesota saves money, and to put in perspective how difficult it would be to absorb Rep. Drazkowski’s proposed cuts, compare the two states’ approaches to corrections:

While Minnesota had 141,000 people under correctional control (i.e., incarcerated, probation and parole) in 2007, Wisconsin had considerably fewer people under correction control (107,000 people). Yet 35% of Wisconsin’s population under correctional control was in prison or in jail, while Minnesota incarcerated just 10%. As reported by the Wisconsin Taxpayer, the Pew Center on the States estimates that nationwide daily probation costs per person in 2008 totaled just $3.42, while daily incarceration costs per person rang in more than 20 times higher, at $78.95.[4] This striking cost difference is the primary reason why Minnesota spends considerably less than Wisconsin on corrections, a difference reflected in their budgets: in 2008, Minnesota spent $460 million on corrections compared to Wisconsin’s $1.08 billion.

So I ask again: Is wringing an additional $26 million from the Minnesota Department of Corrections a good idea? Watch this horrifying (and admittedly edited for maximum effect) video to inform your decision.

[2] National Association of State Budget Officers, 2009 State Expenditure Report.


[4] Wisconsin Taxpayer Newsletter, April 2010, page 6.

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