Prison reform results in strain on welfare system

The burden of improved conditions in state prisons may be borne by welfare recipients, according to new research from Rice University and Louisiana State University.

RICHARD BOYLAN

The study, “Intended and Unintended Consequences of Prison Reform” published online this month in the Journal of Law, Economics & Organization, examined the impact of federal court orders condemning prison crowding and the outcomes among states following these orders. The researchers found that court-mandated efforts by the federal government to improve living conditions in state prisons resulted in decreased welfare funding.

“When courts are effective in increasing spending on prisoners, the legislature has to increase taxes or cut spending in other programs, given states’ balanced budget requirements,” said Richard Boylan, professor of economics at Rice. “As a result, most of these increases in spending come at the expense of welfare spending and/or other social programs.”

Four years before the courts stepped in, states that ultimately were court ordered to improve living conditions spent approximately 72 percent per inmate of what was spent by states that were not ordered to do so. Across the board, the litigation resulted in increased correctional expenditures to 87 percent per prisoner during the year in which the court order was issued and reaching 102 percent two years after the court order. These correctional facilities also saw lower inmate mortality rates (20 percent decrease), fewer prisoners per capita (12 percent decrease) and all-around better prison living conditions.

However, the results of the study show that these court orders resulted in a 22 percent decrease in the amount of money available for state welfare programs.

Boylan noted that their research showed that after states are released from the court orders, they did not increase their welfare cash expenditures; thus, the original change in welfare spending was permanent. He hopes that the research will underscore the unintended consequences of increased prison spending — namely, cuts to welfare programs.

“These results are a classic example of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned policymaking in the face of limited resources, where helping one vulnerable population ends up harming another,” Boylan said.

The researchers examined income per capita, state unemployment, race, percentage of state population residing in urban areas and age distribution between 1951 and 2006 in 12 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) that have been subject to court orders calling for increased prison funding.

The research was funded by Rice University and Louisiana State University. Naci Mocan, the Ourso Distinguished Chair of Economics at Louisiana State University, co-authored the study. The study is available online at http://jleo.oxfordjournals.org.

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.