Monday, October 23, 2006

Budgeting and the Politics of Corrections Sentencing

My first professional job was as a state budget analyst, and I've decided that's made me look at corrections sentencing policy differently than most people. (Not better, just different.) As a budget analyst, you're taught (aka beaten with) the concepts of finite resources, cost-effectiveness, and triaging priorities. You learn that no state, community, government, whatever, can do all the things it wants/needs to do, and so it needs to junk being a two-year old and grow up into responsible decision-making. Figure out what's important, in what order, and match your available dollars to it. And you learn that nothing is exempt.

When I listen to policy types in criminal justice, it's clear that far too many of them have never been budget analysts or have ever grasped the concept of fiscal responsibility. Or, rather, they look at it and decide it's not for them. "Public safety is priceless," they intone. "You can't put a price on human life."

Of course they do, all the time, and, had they ever worked in a budget office, maybe they'd understand how. Every dollar they insist should go to their vision of justice is a dollar taken from a poor kid's possible college education (as a former poor kid, this pisses me off especially), a parent's placement in a well-certified nursing home, an economy that could draw or repel new, long-term businesses. But it goes beyond that. When you look closely at "public safety," it turns out that's not even protected. "Public safety" doesn't mean strict police work to prevent crime from happening, adequate resources for prosecution or courts to make sure the arrest leads to conviction, or putting enough effort into juvenile programs where future crime could really be stunted. Those areas all get short-shrift. No, "public safety" only means punishment, the "expressive justice" we discussed the other day.

This is so clearly short-sighted that only truly tunnel-visioned people could miss it. And I'm not just talking about what happens to the rest of crim just. Public safety involves many other things. Do you like eating contaminated foods? Taking undertested drugs? Driving on dangerous, poorly maintained roads, crumbling bridges? Sure, take money from education because, lord knows, we don't need the civilization and pro-social learning that can be achieved if adequately funded and supported. But all that's irrelevant to those who see "public safety" very narrowly. Maybe someday Hollywood will do a movie or tv series about a hero who ensures spinach pickers wash their hands, but until then, those stories don't sell. "Money is no object when lives are on the line," we hear. That's right. Why, it just grows on trees.

I didn't fully realize the extent of this "grows on trees" attitude until I got involved in OK's sentencing "reform" effort in the mid-90s. At that time, the state DAs and victims groups were pushing a proposal that would have tripled OK's prison pop in 20 years (hard to believe, I know, but I did the projections). My boss, the state sentencing commission director, put it directly to the director of the state's District Attorneys Council--how do we fund all these other important needs if we pass this "reform"? The answer--"That's not our problem."

There you go, the whole argument and explanation for why our present prison policy costs more and more with so demonstrably limited effectiveness (unless you count high recidivism and exponential expense growth as effective), bluntly but honestly presented: "That's not our problem."

I realize this is not a shock to anyone, nothing new. We did a "CA Challenge" about it not so long ago. So why bring it up now? Because of these stories I ran across this evening, on the future costs of deteriorating public infrastructure, on its competition not just with cj funding but even education, on the politics of judicial elections, on yet another state finding "not our problem" a problem, and on a sentencing commission guy being told by a "grows on trees" opponent that he wants people hurt because he understands trade-offs have to be made.

No solution in sight to all this? Well, I have one. New rule: Before anyone can run for public office, they have to have been a budget analyst. Believe me, you'll never look at the world the same way.

And they're all so hip, too.

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