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24 January 2010

Wrong but Right: Good Idea, Bad Data

via Grits for Breakfast by Gritsforbreakfast on 1/21/10

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency issued a report this week titled "The Extravagance of Prison Revisited" (pdf) analyzing four states including Texas, predicting that $2.4 billion per year could be saved if the state shifted 80% of its nonviolent, "nonserious offenders" into community-based incarceration alternatives. Unfortunately, their facts about Texas and its budget are wrong: Flat out erroneous. Here's the miscalculation that blows the whole thing:
Texas spent $2.8 billion to incarcerate 80% (51,026) of nonserious, nonsexual offenders ... Alternatives are estimated to cost the state $433 million. A total cost savings of $2.4 billion can be expected with implementation of alternatives. ... Tailoring that alternative to be shorter in duration and achieving economies of scale would likely lead to a greater cost savings
I share many goals with the authors of this report and largely agree with the shift in budget priorities they're suggesting, but whoever wrote this just got their basic budget information wrong. TDCJ's entire 2009 operating budget is $2,946,892,799, even though the report authors claim that $2.8 billion (basically the whole budget) is being spent on 51,026 nonserious nonviolent offenders (about a third of those incarcerated).

The cost per prisoner figure NCCD uses for Texas is $17,100 per inmate per year (which sounds about right - here are the official stats), so if we multiply that amount by 51,026, we get $872,544,600, not $2.4 billion.

NCCD further estimates the cost of diverting those 51,026 Texans into treatment alternatives would be $433 million, which would leave the state with an estimated $439,544,600 annual savings, using this methodology. That's still a lot of savings and well worth doing, but it's not $2.4 billion per year.

Under the circumstances, I'm not sure whether to trust NCCD's (seemingly conservative, probably California-derived) figures on the cost of alternatives. But what they're suggesting - spending money on stronger community corrections instead of hard prison beds - was essentially the theory behind Texas' much-praised 2007 probation reforms. They're just advocating that Texas invest even more in community corrections and save more money by reducing the number of people it incarcerates.

On that point, I agree with them completely. I think it's basically the way we get to the point where we can talk credibly about closing prisons in Texas. I just wish they'd done a bit more due diligence before publishing this piece, or maybe hired some unemployed blogger down in Texas to fact check for them. ;)

Posted via email from the Un-Official Southwestern PA Re-Entry Coalition Blog

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