Los Angeles seems to be having a hard time sticking to the idea of exposing the police. The city reallocated $ 89 million last year that was originally earmarked for police services, but this year LA and other major cities are increasing police budgets, especially amid an alarming surge in homicides.
For those who support criminal justice reform and invest in vulnerable communities, prison debt relief could be a more permanent avenue.
While there isn’t as much as it does on policing, the United States spends billions on prisons, prisons, and juvenile prisons. Between 1980 and 2010, that spending quadrupled from about $ 20 billion to $ 80 billion – a reflection of the wave of criminal punishment in the mid-80s and 90s that resulted in a huge increase in incarcerations, including black Americans were disproportionately affected.
Such extraordinary correction editions can hardly be justified today. Generation X accounts for around 30% of prison inmates. You were born roughly between 1965 and 1979 and are well past the heyday of crime. Overall, younger generations are much less criminal. The result: empty correctional beds and the ability to reclaim and redirect billions of dollars.
Research conclusively shows that criminal behavior peaks when people are in their early 20s. And not all generations are equally criminals – or are equally punished, as a study published last year shows.
Using data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Shawn Bushway and his fellow researchers compared the generational differences in incarceration for three groups: those born in 1952 (baby boomers), 1972 (Gen Xers), and 1992 (millennials). Boomer incarceration peaked at the age of 23 at the rate of about 780 prisoners per 100,000 people. Generation X incarceration also peaked at 23, but with an unprecedented 1,360 prisoners per 100,000 people – nearly 75% more.
Generation Xers were the wrong age at the wrong time. The mid-1980s to 1990s was an era of rising crime – particularly violent crimefueled by the crack cocaine epidemic. Murder rates doubled between 1960 and 1980 and did not decline until the 1990s. Back then, men in their teens and twenties were sentenced at high rates, and the US prison system expanded rapidly.
Fortunately, the Gen Xers seem to have been outliers. Millennial incarceration rates are similar to baby boomers and should stay that way as millennials have already passed the peak of criminal behavior.
That leaves Generation Z behind. As of January 2020, young people and 20-year-olds were arrested even less often than millennials. While there is evidence of an increase in violent crime among young men during the pandemic, it is not nearly as large as that of Gen X in the 1980s.
By 2019, juvenile detention rates were at an all-time low, falling a further 25% during the pandemic as facilities tried to stop the transmission of the coronavirus. That leaves many expensive facilities mostly empty. Nationwide, per capita operating costs increased 44% from 2014 to 2020. Four states – Alaska, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont – spend more than $ 500,000 annually to house a teenager. California spends more than $ 300,000.
The same economy applies to adult penal institutions. Between 2008 and 2018, the incarceration rate fell 21%, and it fell even faster during the pandemic. Prisons are 85% or less busy in half of the states. But spending on building and operating prisons and prisons has remained stable.
Shifting funds from one state or local authority to another is bureaucratically and politically difficult – especially through negotiating with unions that represent law enforcement officers. Still, it makes little sense to finance incarceration at the same level when it is needed less and less.
Wasting aside, it can create a perverse incentive to fill the empty cells. Although causality is difficult to prove, fewer people are serving their sentences in local prisons and more are being held in pre-trial detention centers.
The process of downsizing prisons – and their budgets – could be accelerated by releasing prisoners who no longer pose a threat to society. Much of these discussions focus on distracting young first-time offenders. But this ignores the new reality of prisons: there are now more people aged 55 and over in state prisons than between the ages of 18 and 24 – a complete reversal from 20 years ago. America is increasingly spending its tax dollars imprisoning the elderly.
We can reasonably expect that most Generation Xers, now in their 40s and 50s, were released years ago after serving their prison terms in their 20s. Instead, they fell victim to another aspect of the wave of prosecutions: an emphasis on criminal record in conviction. The sharpest instrument of this kind was the three-strike laws in many states, including California, which provided for incarceration and long sentences for even minor violations.
Even more destructive are condemnation guidelines based on a defendant’s prejudice – which sometimes outweigh the gravity of the crime at hand. Releasing older offenders, or at least not imprisoning them solely on the basis of their previous convictions, could unlock this captured generation without compromising public safety.
Regardless, new lows in incarceration rates offer an opportunity to shift resources away from costly correctional facilities and into education, vocational training, transportation and other community services.
In other words, savings in prisons, juvenile prisons, and prisons could fund the goals of the many Defund the Police campaigns – in ways that gain more political support and do not compromise on public safety.
Shawn Bushway is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, non-partisan Rand Corp., whose work focuses on criminal justice issues. Nidhi Kalra is a Senior Information Scientist at Rand.