THOMSON - Illinois' Thomson Prison was the subject of an op-ed published on TheHill.com Saturday. The author, Derek Cohen, is the policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice, and drives home the fallacy of federal or state prisons answering economic woes in rural communities. It's a perspective that Illinois doesn't hear much about these days:
... By this Keynesian math, opening prisons would be a strictly profit-making venture. Rural poverty could be eliminated wholesale if the United States could only build enough prisons. Specifically, Illinois could solve its manifold budgetary issues by underwriting the cost of the Thomson facility itself. All facetiousness aside, correctional budgets stretching back decades have shown this not to be the case.
There is still the matter of facility overcrowding. In fiscal year 2013, federal prisons were collectively at 136 percent of rated capacity, with each inmate costing nearly $30,000 to house. Thomson's activation stands to lighten some of the capacity strain, though the cost will jump significantly with an additional facility, adding around $50 million in operational expenses alone to the BOP's near $7 billion budget.
Arresting prison population growth while keeping the public safe is one of a few issues on which Congress is showing bipartisan agreement. Academics, practitioners and politicians from all across the political spectrum have highlighted meaningful ways federal law and corrections policy can be reformed at no detriment to public safety. Reducing overcriminalization, using community corrections, expanding in-facility incentive programs and removing barriers to reentry are but a handful of reforms that will reduce the BOP's burden on the taxpayer. States of all sizes have capitalized on this strategy to reduce their own correctional populations.
There is a twofold lesson here. First, poor decisions made at the state level, then discharged to the federal government, is not a problem solved. Rather, what were once red lines in Illinois's ledger have now been shared across the nation. The economic benefit directly enjoyed in northwestern Illinois is being underwritten by every taxpaying Oregonian, Texan and New Yorker. Second, the necessity of this facility is artificial. Federal prison overcrowding can be greatly diminished, if not eliminated, with sensible criminal justice reform. Several bills currently before Congress would bring about these necessary changes. Opening a new facility represents a step in the wrong direction and only serves to benefit a few interested parties.
Opening facilities for the sake of jobs is unsustainable fiscal and criminal justice policy. Lawmakers should only seek to build or expand facilities as a last resort. Before passing a yearly obligation of $50 million on to the American taxpayer to the benefit of a select few, try serious criminal justice reforms.