What’s Really Driving Our Incarceration Boom

Published June 13, 2016

A new report published by the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan federal government agency, estimates a bill awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), would reduce federal spending by $722 million over the next 10 years.

SRCA, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, would revise federally mandated minimum sentences for individuals convicted of some non-violent federal crimes.

Revising sentencing requirements is one way lawmakers can address the growing problem of prison overcrowding and ballooning incarceration spending without compromising public safety, but lawmakers should also consider the role the expanding reach of government has had in driving spending on the U.S. prison system.

In 1986, when aggressive policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws began to come into vogue with lawmakers, total state government spending on imprisonment was $21.6 billion, adjusted for inflation. In 2010, state governments were spending about $53.2 billion on criminal justice in present-day dollars.

According to statistics from the U.S Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics tool, violent crime rates declined by about 16 percent and property crimes declined by about 22 percent from 1986 to 2010.

So, if the country became less violent and individuals were less likely to commit crimes, why did state spending on government prisons increase by 146 percent over the same period?

It may be somewhat counterintuitive, but the answer is not because governments were spending more money on catching and locking people up.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), tough-on-crime laws, such as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which doled out $7.6 billion in taxpayer money to state and local governments to put more police on the streets, could only be credited with reducing overall crime rates by 1.3 percent, over a seven-year period. Factors other than criminal justice spending “accounted for the majority of the decline in crime during this period.”

If crime rates are declining, why is criminal justice spending and incarceration rates going up?

In 1982, DOJ estimated that there were 3,000 actions that could land an individual in federal prison. In 2015, that number has expanded, as nearly 300,000 federal regulations and 4,500 federal criminal statutes are now on the books. When more things are “illegal,” more people get arrested and convicted of doing illegal things.

Another reason federal overregulation contributes to incarceration rates is many laws and regulations are simply poorly written.

One can literally be charged, convicted, and hauled off to the hoosegow without even intending to do wrong by society. In 1991, race car driver Bobby Unser was convicted of committing a federal crime and spent six months in prison. What was Unser’s crime against the people, which necessitated the spending of taxpayer money on housing, food, and clothing?

While driving a snowmobile in Colorado, Unser got lost in a blizzard and spent two days in the wild, building a snow cave to weather the elements. Unable to navigate in the whiteout conditions, Unser accidentally veered into a patch of land owned by the federal government, violating the Wilderness Act of 1964. He was convicted of illegally operating “a snowmobile within a National Forest Wilderness Area.”

As the size of government’s role in everyday people’s lives has grown over the years, so has the government’s ability to ruin people’s lives. Lawmakers across the nation and in Washington need to re-evaluate whether taxpayers are getting the criminal justice system they deserve and spend millions of dollars per year to support.

[Originally published at the Detroit News]