Voters Prefer to Cut Corrections Spending Over Education Spending

I’ve just been reviewing an interesting set of survey results regarding criminal-justice policy from last fall (yes, I’m a little behind in my reading).  Sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the survey’s key findings are reported here.  In light of the current controversy in Wisconsin over the Governor’s newly released budget, I was particularly intrigued by public views regarding spending priorities in times of fiscal crisis.  Here are the percentages who rated various competing options “strongly not acceptable”:

Reducing funding for K-12: 71%

Raising property taxes: 60%

Reducing funding for health care services: 58%

Reducing funding for higher education: 55%

Raising business taxes: 39%

Reducing funding for state prisons: 27%

Raising income taxes for the wealthy: 23%

Reducing funding for transportation projects: 21%

Governor Walker’s budget seems to reverse these priorities: K-12 education is getting slashed by $834 million over the next two years, while corrections loses only $52.6 million.  (I get these numbers from yesterday’s Journal Sentinel report.)

Two other aspects of the budget proposal also caused me to raise my eyebrows.

First, there is an increase in spending on the investigation of Internet crimes against children.  It’s rather extraordinary to see spending increases on anything in this budget, which otherwise will cause so many people so much pain, and I am puzzled why the Governor would see this particular social problem as one that deserves to be singled out for a more robust public response — apart from the political advantage of playing on anxieties about the sexual victimization of children by strangers, a relatively rare sort of crime that nonetheless looms large in the public imagination.  Local police departments in Wisconsin will likely be taking a big hit as a result of what is currently happening at both the state and federal levels of government.  If Governor Walker wants to allocate some new state money to crime investigation, why not give it to local police departments and give them discretion to spend it on what are really the biggest threats to public safety.  Or, better still, put it toward K-12 education; I rather strongly suspect that the impending cuts to public schools will do far more harm to the state’s children than Internet predators do.

Second, Walker’s budget would eliminate early-release opportunities for prison inmates.  This is the functional equivalent of another increase in spending — it means that inmates will be spending more time in prison and thus consuming more state resources.  True, the early-release program adopted in 2009 has been politically controversial and has not resulted in many releases or much cost-saving.  However, it may be that much of the controversy results from political grandstanding and public misunderstanding.  Certainly, the Pew survey suggests there is widespread support for removing nonviolent offenders from prison.  Seventy-five percent of respondents said that they would favor reducing prison time in order to close budget deficits.  Ninety percent accepted the idea of reducing prison stays by six months for low-risk offenders who behave well.  Eighty-six percent agreed with this proposition:

We have too many low-risk, nonviolent offenders in prison. We need alternatives to incarceration that cost less and save our expensive prison space for violent and career criminals.

These sorts of results — which are reflected in the extraordinary expansion of early-release opportunities across the nation over the past decade — suggest that there may still be great potential for Wisconsin’s early-release program if it is restructured a bit and presented so as to address public-safety concerns more effectively.