Thursday, August 09, 2007

Costs, Opportunity and Sunk

This story from Stateline is one we should pay attention to in corrections sentencing. Except for a few states, here or there, the last few years have been pretty good revenue-wise, allowing all kinds of tax cuts and throwing dollars at traditional programs and remedies rather than dealing with their structural problems. The most obvious one is what used to be a bridge in MN, but prisons are definitely in the same category. Now, as the Stateline piece makes clear (and FL is demonstrating in this story), the free flow of dollars is starting its pendulum pull back in the scarcity direction with predictable (and predictably ignored) cycles of housing and other economic drivers.

Maybe it’s just because I started my career as a state budget analyst looking for how to max impact of every dollar rather than simply throwing them at “popular” but less effective “solutions,” but I’m very afraid the link between the last decade’s “deferred maintenance” and the realization that “public safety” entails more than just run people in and out of prison where they may or may not improve socially will become even more clear as the budgets appear to be tightening in more states. You run around “saving” victims from predators and let them go off broken bridges. Feel safe? As this economist notes, "We've been deferring maintenance, balancing the budget by deferring the maintenance for a long time now and we've got to fix that. It's just stupid.” Of course, that’s the intellectual and analytical phrasing.

And, while I’m beating dead horses, the increased fiscal difficulties will be a fertile ground not just for private entrepreneurs selling prison beds and halfway houses but for those scientists, researchers, and marketers with the latest TECHNOCORRECTIONS breakthroughs, which will be hard to resist with their promises of scientific success for far less costs. In fact, the only thing that may stop the TECHNO folks could be the competition and opposition from the privatization folks threatened that we may not keep producing enough crime and victims to keep their operations profitable. As much as I don’t care for economists, economics has produced some key concepts, including “opportunity costs” and “sunk costs,” which coincide with and counter each other and which we need to have constantly on our minds as we consider how those rarer tax dollars will be spent in the future. Which is why we should pay attention to these stories. (And why, as Doug Berman notes at Sentencing Law and Policy, states like MI are getting futures of either good colleges or more prisons and why refusal to even think about dealing with them is so dangerous.)

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