Opinion: Daily Journal

The Next Big Budget Problem

RALEIGH – It’s been evident for months that 2007 was going to be a big year.

That is, the 2007 legislative session will feature big proposals, big bonds, big budgets, and perhaps big taxes. While there is some debate about its size, most analysts expect there to be a gap next year between projected revenues and spending on current operations. Plus, lawmakers and organized interests want billions more of taxpayers’ money for roads, schools, colleges, mental-health facilities, land preservation, water and sewer projects, housing, and other facilities, as well as for a variety of new programs in the operating budget.

Every idea has its lobby. Every idea has its rationale. But if fiscal discipline is a virtue, then we can’t fund every idea.

The latest is in some ways the most justified: more state prisons. According to McClatchy reporter Dan Kane, current construction plans will yield a 400-inmate shortage of prison space by 2008 and a challenging 6,400-bed shortfall by 2016. Because protecting our individual rights to life, liberty, and property through trying and incarcerating criminals is the first and highest function of government – as some guy named Locke once wrote – prison capacity must receive a high priority in any sensible appropriations process.

And yet, that doesn’t automatically justify a program of building 6,400 new state prison beds. For one thing, incarceration is an expensive punishment. It needs to be used judiciously, against offenses and offenders that deserve it. Prisons ought to be reserved for those predators who violate their fellow citizens’ rights to personal safety and property. Prisons shouldn’t be used to punish drug addicts, for example, who are at most violating their own bodies and the rights of friends and family members. Attaching the proper sentences to the proper crimes ought to free up some prison capacity for predators.

Second, we ought to consider alternative ways to build and operate correctional facilities, be it with more inmate labor or private contracting. Done poorly, these alternatives are certainly worse than traditional state operations. But in communities where they are done thoughtfully and carefully, costs are lower and program quality maintained or improved.

To my mind, a criminal-justice system should use incarceration to accomplish these four goals, more or less in order:

Justice. Citizens want to know that those who commit crimes will be punished. Call it retribution or revenge if you wish, but it’s really just a basic human desire to see the scales balanced.

Incapacitation. When criminals are behind bars, they can’t hurt innocent citizens.

Deterrence. The prospect of prison should discourage some predators from committing crimes. However, they must perceive a high-enough probability of being apprehended, tried, convicted, and sentenced.

Rehabilitation. Prisons should attempt to correct anti-social and self-destructive behavior, hence the euphemism “corrections.” However, realism is required. Many rehabilitation programs fail. Keep trying them, but in the meantime, maximize the justice, incapacitation, and deterrence effects.

To accomplish these goals, there must be sufficient prison capacity to ensure that a threat of punishment can become the reality of punishment. Add that to the spending list, and you have the makings of a big budget debate come January.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.