Four facts: Twenty years of building have created tremendous prison capacity.
Crime rates have fallen. The number of inmates in state prisons fell in
the second half of 2000, the first such decline in nearly three decades.
The recession is forcing states to trim budgets.
A reasonable conclusion: This isn't a great time to grow your town
by hosting a prison. Indeed, recent Ninth District events indicate
that the winds continue to shift against further prison growth.
In November, Michigan's governor announced that the state's balanced
budget amendment compelled him to cut the corrections budget, forcing
layoffs at most Michigan prisons, including facilities throughout
the Upper Peninsula (see "Prisons hit hard
by budget cuts").
In Wisconsin, some analysts suggest that the newly built New Lisbon
prison may be mothballed because the state lacks funds to operate
it. In addition, county sheriffssome of whom overbuilt their
jails in anticipation of earning state revenue for housing state
prisonersare being told that the state is cutting prisoner
Minnesota's corrections secretary has announced a policy of squeezing
efficiencies from existing prisons rather than building more.
Montana's governor says that after her predecessor's building binge,
she's going to take a break: "We have enough cells. For now,"
she said in her inaugural speech.
South Dakota plans to close its state youth penitentiary because
it doesn't have enough wayward youth.
North Dakota is studying its corrections situation in hopes that
it won't have to build more prisons.
Even private developers, who fanned the prison-building flames
for two decades, concede it may be time to look at other markets.
"Today is not a good time to go build speculative prisons,"
said Jim Hunter, executive vice president of Dominion Venture Group,
an Oklahoma firm that built prisons in Appleton, Minn., and Stanley,
Wis. "Maybe a year or five years from now it'll be appropriate
again. But no, not today. There's really very few opportunities
out there right now."
Hunter notes that demand for prisons is more than a numerical difference
between inmates and inmate beds. "Demand is political. Demand
is cultural," he said. "There has to be the will and the
need and the sense of distress and the cash and all the things that
enter into what I consider demand for bed space."
Demand for prison beds also weakens when policymakers consider
cheaper alternatives for less-risky inmates. In the Ninth District,
as elsewhere, politicians are rethinking the "get tough"
policies that contributed to the prison building boom.
Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate, Kathleen
Falk, for example, recently launched her campaign by calling for
an end to prison building and a shift of resources to structured
probation and treatment programs to reduce drug abuse. The current
governor, Scott McCallumfaced with budget deficitsappears
to support an unofficial moratorium on prison building, though Wisconsin
continues to house many prisoners in other states.
In North Dakota, Rep. Duane DeKrey, head of the Legislature's interim
corrections committee, said that in August 2001 the state dropped
mandatory sentencing for first-time drug offendersa significant
factor in the state's accelerating incarcerationand shifted
resources into drug rehabilitation and alternative sentencing. "This
way you can keep them employed, they can be contributing members
to society, paying taxes, and you can still watch them because you've
got them electronically monitored," he said.
The change marks a dramatic shift in philosophy. "When I was
first in the Legislature about 10 years ago," noted DeKrey,
"we went through a spell where we really got tough on crime.
The effect of that fiscally is that our corrections budget has skyrocketed.
And for every dollar that you're spending on corrections, you're
not spending that on primary and secondary education, you're not
spending it on the colleges [or] tourism. It's just money down a
rat hole, basically."
So now North Dakota is determining how best to economize on its
use of prisons, rather than building its way out of the crime problem.
Said DeKrey, "We're coming to view corrections [as] a last