Time to take another look at prisons

The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it would phase out the use of private prisons because they don’t provide the same level of correctional services and don’t save substantially on costs.

The decision will affect only a small percentage of the nation’s prisoners — unless it is a signal of other reforms to come. If states would also phase out the use of private prisons, for example, it would affect a lot more people. Even that, however, wouldn’t affect Wisconsin. This is one of the minority of states that does not have privately operated prisons. Nevertheless, a signal from any level of government that something about prisons needs to change is welcome. In our view too many people are incarcerated, and the costs, both fiscal and social, are unnecessarily high.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education pointed out that Wisconsin, like most states, had increased state and local per-capita spending on corrections at a far higher rate than per-pupil spending on education over the last 35 years.

Wisconsin spends far more than neighboring Minnesota on its corrections system, even though the two states have similar populations. Wisconsin also spends more than its other neighboring states.

The Wisconsin Budget Project reported that in 2013 Wisconsin’s state and local spending on corrections amounted to $259 per capita. The comparable numbers for other states were Michigan $252, Minnesota $163, Illinois $157 and Iowa $152.

There is also the social cost to consider. Incarcerating so many people has a bad effect on families and neighborhoods. This was brought to light dramatically by Laura Kaeppeler of Kenosha when she was named Miss America in 2012. She made mentoring children of incarcerated parents — a subject she could discuss from her own experience — her personal platform.

Right now, there are more than 22,000 people in Wisconsin state prisons, according to the Department of Corrections, plus hundreds if not thousands more in county jails. There are huge costs associated with incarcerating so many people — direct costs to taxpayers, but also costs to families and society.

There are other ways of coping with crime and criminals, and other states are using some of them. Minnesota, for example, has half the number of people incarcerated as Wisconsin.

The federal government just initiated a small reform. Let’s hope states, including Wisconsin, follow the lead.

Kenosha News, Aug. 19

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