Build it and they will come?

Let’s say you’re a governement official and you need to raise some “revenue” for your county.

Where would “Hey let’s build more jails!” be on the list?

According to the Star Tribune article “Empty cells mean counties go begging

Some county boards built new jails as a way to make money; as crime dropped, that gamble didn’t pay off. ”

Minnesota counties have spent tens of millions of dollars building jail cells no one needs.

In the past five years, county boards have built modern jails that have added about 2,300 new beds to the state’s total, with more opening in the months to come. But they did so just as crime has plummeted, with 18,000 fewer arrests than five years ago.

The result is a fevered competition to help the jails pay for themselves by renting out empty beds for other counties’ inmates. One sheriff has even asked legislators to rewrite laws to allow him to make money from Wisconsin inmates.

No one claims to know exactly how bad the problem is. But it looks as if there are thousands of empty beds — the equivalent of all the combined space in the state’s 40 smallest jails.

Much of the building boom was sensible, preparing for future needs and replacing antiquated facilities. But some of it amounted to an entrepreneurial gamble that is starting to look ill-timed.

I realize that counties are paid a fee for housing inmates from other counties, but really, jails as a revenue builder? This is not only nonesense at it’s finest, but a sure measure of the police state mentality that has been gripping our country. Maybe it generates “revenue” for a county, but putting people in jail has great expense for our state, both financially and socially.

If you’d like to see how much of a cost justice is to Minnesota here is a nifty website that includes data up to 1998
County expenditures: sheriffs` office, corrections and public safety capital outlay
Here’s a sampling.

Expenditure type 1998
Sheriff’s office $228,807,070
Corrections $255,228,573
Public safety capital outlay $64,423,361
Total county expenditures $3,696,581,075

You are reading that correctly, over 3 billion dollars in 1998 for Total county expenditures.
A quick search of the cost of a single jail bed and all that goes along with is found that in 1999 it was a little over $14,000 per bed versus a national average of $10,000. I could not find more recent data. Note, in 1991 the total justice cost was approaching about 1 billion. In just over ten years these costs have tripled. Read the Office of Legislator Auditor report from 1991 Sentencing and Correctional Policy

Naturally the data has caveats, which lead one to believe the actual costs are far greater.

•All data pertains to Minnesota county expenditures for criminal justice activities, including those related to sheriff’s offices, corrections and public safety capital outlays.
•The data pertains only to county-level agencies and does not include expenditures by city entities within a county.
•Court and county attorney costs also are not represented in the data set. Expenditures associated with these functions are included under the “general government departments” heading and are not distinguishable from other noncriminal justice costs grouped in this category.
•The dollar amounts listed for each county reflect actual expenditures for the given year and have not been adjusted for inflation.
•Due to an accounting change in 1988, total county expenditures data for 1985 to 1987 does not include debt service payments. For this reason, comparisons among these years will result in distortions and should not be made.
•Caution should be exercised when comparing corrections expenditures. Some counties are missing data for this category because either they did not report or they characterized these expenditures differently in their budget.

I for one can’t wait for the Minnesota Tourism Board to release it’s next ad campaign “Explore Minnesota, get arrested, and fill our empty jail cells!”

What do you think?


1 Comment so far

  1. Wow (unregistered) on December 23rd, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    I can’t believe any government official would think building a jail cell is a way to make money.

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