A legislative committee talked further this morning about the growing Arkansas prison population and proposals to deal with it. It heard from Richard Wilson, assistant director of legislative research, that a $100 million, 1,000-bed new prison would likely require a license decal fee of $2.50 to $3 a year, not $2 as originally suggested.
Wilson said the best figures available now shows that a $1 decal charge — on new and used cars, motorcycles, boats, trailers, trucks and similar — produces about $2.67 million a year or $5.34 million on a $2 increase. His best estimate on the cost of financing for a $100 million prison would require another 50 cents to $1 in increased fee to produce enough revenue to meet financing requirements, or an additional $1.3 to $2.6 million annually.
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He said he could re-evaluate those figures when the regular legislative session rolls around. The figure doesn’t include operating costs.
And other information at the meeting questioned the value of more prison space in fighting crime.
The Joint State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee also took a look at an idea from Rep. Bob Ballinger to pay an outside contractor to run a program to help targeted inmates re-enter the workforce. It could save money, even with $10 million in payments a year to the contractor, a brief report showed. But there’d be another cost of a sort not necessarily popular with some legislators — it would require early release of many inmates. That’s how you save money.
Legislators have also been told that a tiny percentage of the state’s 17,000 inmates, less than 2 percent, are in prison solely on drug charges. This counters a popular belief that prisons are stuffed with minor drug violators. However: This doesn’t address those who committed other crimes to buy drugs. Nor does it address the economic imperative: The profit opportunity created by drug criminalization attracts many dealers to the sometimes violent life for income not otherwise readily available in honest labor.
Here’s a full report on the cost of incarceration in Arkansas. All costs considered, it’s more than $100 per year for every man, woman and child in Arkansas.
More interesting is this report on costs and benefits. Has more incarceration reduced the crime rate or recidivism? Figures don’t suggest so.
The best single proximate explanation of increases in incarceration rates is not the escalation in crime, but the policy choices that led to significant increases in the use of imprisonment as a response to crime
But can early release really be a solution to problems that some legislators see is precisely use of early release? Or drug courts, which have a significant cost of their own, if properly run. Chew on these conclusions from the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research.
Cost-Benefit analyses conducted lead to the following conclusions:
1. A 10% increase in the state incarceration rate leads to a 2% to 4% reduction in the crime rate.
2. Due to diminishing marginal returns, and as a result of significant increases in incarceration rates in recent years, an increase in the incarceration rate today avoids considerably fewer crimes than it did just a decade ago.
3. Incarcerating more violent and high-volume property offenders continues to generate more benefits than costs, although the net advantage of increasing incarceration rates for these offenders has diminished.
4. Since the early 1990s, however, incarcerating drug offenders has generated more costs than benefits. That is, today it costs taxpayers more to incarcerate additional drug-involved
offenders than the average value of the crimes avoided.
5. Some research-based and well-implemented rehabilitation and prevention programs can
produce better returns for the taxpayer’s dollar than prison expansion for certain types of
offenders. Several research-based interventions, particularly family-based approaches for
juvenile offenders and drug treatment for drug-related adult offenders, have returns well in
excess of their costs.
PS — There was no hunger among legislators at the meeting for any tax increase to pay for any prisons. But why Sen. Eddie Jo Williams thinks using existing buildings, drug courts and alternative treatment programs — all of which have their own set of costs — would somehow magically solve crowding without cost is a mystery. Loves and fishes may have worked for Jesus, but it doesn’t do so well for prisoners, particularly when ever crime by a parolee or probationer increases the clamor for longer sentences.