Academic Minute
5:00 am
Wed October 9, 2013

Dr. Richard Boylan, Rice University – The Cost of Prison Reform

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Richard Boylan of Rice University explores the connection between prison reform and a reduction in social aid programs. 

Dr. Richard Boylan, Rice University – The Cost of Prison Reform

Richard Boylan is a professor of economics at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His teaching and research interests include law and economics and political economy. His work has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals and his findings on the economics of prison reform are scheduled for publication in 2014.

About Dr. Boylan

Dr. Richard Boylan – The Cost of Prison Reform

State prison crowding is a major problem in the corrections system, and since as early as the 1970s, U.S. federal courts have issued court orders condemning states. The court rulings have been effective in increasing states’ spending on corrections, but at what cost? As economists, we were interested to learn more about the intended and unintended consequences of prison reform.

We found that prior to courts becoming involved, states that ultimately received orders to improve living conditions spent approximately 72 percent per inmate of what was spent by states that would not be ordered to do so. Across the board, the litigation resulted in increased correctional expenditures to 87 percent per prisoner during the year in which the court order was issued and reaching 102 percent two years after the court order. This lead to a 20 percent decrease in inmate mortality rates, a 12 percent decrease in prisoners per capita and all-around better prison living conditions.

However, we found that most of the increases in corrections spending came at the expense of welfare aid and social programs – and permanently so. Given the states' balanced budget requirements, legislatures are forced to increase taxes or cut spending in other programs. The results of our study show that the court orders resulted in a 22 percent decrease in the amount spent on state welfare programs. We found that after states were released from the court orders, they did not increase their welfare expenditures, making these spending cuts permanent.

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