Prison costs don’t have to bust the budget

  • Dick Startz / University of Washington Economist
  • Saturday, April 29, 2006 9:00pm
  • Opinion

Room and board at Harvard costs $9,578 a year. Forty-eight percent of the 6,600 undergraduates receive at least partial financial aid from Harvard.

The annual cost to keep an inmate in a Washington state prison is $26,736. One hundred percent of the 17,788 prisoners are paid for by Washington taxpayers.

The number of prisoners confined in Washington penitentiaries has risen 60 percent in the last decade. In addition, there are 28,000 state offenders out in the community under some kind of supervision. We also pay for another 12,000 people locked up in county jails around the state.

Another way to think about the financial drain is that the Department of Corrections budget is around $700 million a year. To put it another way, taxes to house state inmates for a Washington family of four come to about $500 – not including the cost of the county jails. We lock up a lot of people and we spend a lot of money doing it. Are we getting our money’s worth?

There is no one right answer to the “Are we getting our money’s worth” question – it depends on the prisoner and the crime. For some inmates, it’s hard to see an alternative to locking them away. Ten percent of prisoners committed murder. Those people need to be kept away for a long, long time.

While the very worst offenders belong in the penitentiary, we might want to rethink the treatment of the sizeable number of nonviolent criminals. Some 51 percent of state prisoners committed nonviolent offenses. Can’t we find an effective way to deter nonviolent crime that doesn’t require serving time in the penitentiary?

Remember that we’re talking about people sent to prison by a judge and jury, so even though their crimes were nonviolent their offenses were still serious. You don’t get sent to the state pen for littering. But we ought to be able to find a punishment that deters while costing taxpayers less than a stay at Harvard. Can’t we find punishments that are unpleasant enough to deter, but are cruel neither to the guilty nor to our pocketbooks?

Some progress has been made in this direction. About 4 percent of prisoners are on work release. As you would expect, most of these work release prisoners are nonviolent offenders. Still, more than 9 out of 10 nonviolent offenders are in regular lock-up.

Finland has an approach worth considering for some offenses. There, fines are set according to a person’s income as well as the severity of the offense. A couple of years back a Nokia executive was hit with a $100,000 fine (two weeks’ pay) for driving 15 mph over the limit.

Two weeks’ pay for 15 mph over the limit strikes me as excessive, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a serious white-collar criminal paying half his income for five years instead of a couple of years in jail.

Washington should increase its use of really heavy fines, house arrest with electronic-monitoring bracelets, and other innovative methods of sending a strong message without destroying someone’s life and without busting the state budget.

We’re always going to have crime, and we’re never going to be able to do without state prisons. The worst of the worst need to be incarcerated.

But perhaps the balance between prison and other punishments isn’t right.

We should be more creative in making the punishment fit the crime, to protect both public safety and public funds.

Dick Startz is Castor Professor of Economics at the University of Washington. He can be reached at

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