Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Fiscal Meaning of Prison Explosion

Sunday's editorial in the Sacramento Bee provided a critical take on the impact of prison overcrowding on state expenditures. The emphasis is particular on the aging prison population and the costs associated with medical care.

Those in prison aren't eligible for Medicare, the federal health program for the nation's elderly. Nor are they eligible for Medi-Cal, the health program for the poor in which costs are shared between the state and the federal government. So the entire cost of health care for older, sick prisoners falls on the state.

All of this is now in the federal courts because the state has refused to create alternatives for dealing with feeble, chronically ill prisoners to reduce prison population – or to pay for building facilities to house these prisoners.

One court is examining whether to cap prison population. Another is looking at whether to force the state to pay for seven 1,500-bed facilities. Both courts could make decisions as early as January.

However, a recent empirical study by John Pfaff from Fordham University suggests that prison overcrowding seems to stem more from masses of parole violators being returned to prison for short periods of time, than from people "housed" in correctional institutions for a lengthy period of time. How much of those sentences translate to more prison expenses remains unclear. I strongly recommend reading the full article; beyond the important implications, the study is beautifully done and is a great example of good quality empirical scholarship.

(The Sac Bee piece brought to my attention via the fabulous Sentencing Law and Policy blog. Thanks!)

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