Pubdate: Thu, 27 Jan 2005
Source: Wisconsin State Journal (WI)
Section: Spectrum, Page F1
Copyright: 2005 Madison Newspapers, Inc.
Author: Daniel Kapust
Bookmark: (Incarceration)

Prisons Eat Up Tax Dollars

Rehabilitation Failures Lead To Repeat Crimes: Is Public Truly Better 


One of the most common rhetorical tactics of conservatives is to criticize 
"throwing money" at various problems, such as poverty or underperforming 
public schools. This is normally followed by the recommendation of some 
kind of reform, usually involving reductions in spending or cutting 
programs. The irony of this rhetorical trope and current debates over 
Wisconsin's prisons is that conservatives (and non-conservatives) have done 
just the thing they condemn: Throw money at a system that doesn't seem to 
be working all that well.

More guards, more prisons, higher walls -- these seem to be the solutions 
to dealing with prisoners and crime in Wisconsin. We're not alone in this 
regard; it is a lot easier for politicians to pretend to be tough on crime 
to attract voters than it is to make good policy. If it is the case that, 
as Phil Brinkman writes in his thorough and important pieces, Wisconsin's 
corrections system does not rehabilitate those incarcerated in it, and 
seems to make prisoners more likely to commit new crimes, one might well 
ask where all that tax payer money is going to.

Can declines in crime rates be attributed to increased expenditures on the 
Department of Corrections and increased incarceration? Not really, 
according to Brinkman's Jan. 24 news story. Rates of incarceration in other 
states (such as New York) grew less rapidly than in Wisconsin, yet crime 
dropped more rapidly. In other states (such as West Virginia) the rate of 
incarceration increased more rapidly, yet crime actually increased. But 
politicians maintain that "getting tough on crime" is the only solution. A 
fringe benefit of getting tough on crime, in addition to being able to 
sneer at those who aren't, is that it can help get you money for your 
campaigns from groups that support building more prisons, and can even help 
to provide jobs to one's constituents if one lives in an area (as some 
legislators do) that has prisons.

Unfortunately, what is good for politicians' short-term electoral 
calculations often turns out to be bad for the long-term well-being of the 
people who elect them. Most prisoners will someday be released. Yet it is 
unclear that the corrections system in Wisconsin is preparing those it is 
entrusted to rehabilitate for reentering society. When confronted with 
findings of independent task forces and commissions dealing with prisons 
and crime over the last 30 years, according to Brinkman, "In almost every 
case, lawmakers have opted for the vastly more expensive and arguably less 
effective solution of increasing punishments." Perhaps we should start to 
ask tougher questions of those entrusted with protecting us. A starter: Why 
should we pour endless amounts of money into institutions that politicians 
have little interest in running efficiently or effectively?

Daniel Kapust

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