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States spending too much on prisons?

A locked cellblock inside the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Major carmakers -- and not just the American ones, either -- are doing just about as badly as the stock markets. We learned today sales at Ford and General Motors were down 50 percent or more last month. Toyota and Nissan both dropped 40 percent. Toyota, in fact, is taking a page from Detroit's playbook and asking for billions in aid from the Japanese government.

Back home, billions of federal dollars are heading to the states. But that stimulus money alone isn't going to help them with their budget problems. Many states are still deciding where to make some painful cuts. A new study from the Pew Center on the states suggests one place to start as Marketplace's Rico Gagliano reports.


RICO GAGLIANO: The study found that state spending on corrections has risen faster than any budget item except health care. Adam Gelb directs Pew's Public Safety Performance project.

ADAM GELB: The corrections system has gotten massive, it's gotten massively expensive.

Gelb says states now spend about $50 billion on prisons and corrections programs -- four times as much as twenty years ago. He says prison spending, especially, is not paying off.

GELB There is a wide range of community supervision programs that cost far less than prison and get better results in terms of public safety.

The study says probation costs three-and-a-half bucks a day per prisoner. Imprisonment? Eighty bucks. Alan Cropsey is a Republican state senator from Michigan -- where 20 percent of the general fund goes to corrections.

ALAN CROPSEY: The political fact of the matter is right now, you have a lot of the business groups saying, "You need to cut back on the spending in the department of corrections."

But it's not so easy. Cropsey says it's unwise to reduce the prison population without strong social programs in place to prevent recidivism.

CROPSEY: If the program breaks down, you have people that are back out on the street committing armed robberies, which in the business community -- that's not good for them.

Still, the fact such programs are even discussed is a big change. Pew's Adam Gelb says instead of being tough on crime, politicians now also have to ask how they can get taxpayers the best return on their investment.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

About the author

Rico Gagliano co-hosts and co-produces Marketplace’s “Small Talk” segment.
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Make Inmates pay for their stay in prison to cover the cost

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