State budget realities make new prison construction unlikely

Policymakers will need to look to reforms to address overcrowding issues

By PATRICK HUGHES | June 4, 2020

Severe, impending budget woes brought about by the Covid-19 crisis, limited ability to borrow money and a prison population that will begin to rise again will soon bring Wisconsin’s long-simmering corrections dilemma to a head.

If new prison construction were ever a viable option for addressing longstanding overcrowding, fiscal woes arising from the pandemic make that increasingly untenable.

Prison Population Growth and Overcrowding:

Wisconsin’s prisons are already old and full.

On March 20, the Division of Adult Institutions’ population was 23,416.

As part of a strategy to minimize COVID-19 infections, DOC shortly after that refused to accept new inmates from county jails, halted almost all revocations and moved up release dates when possible. As a result, Wisconsin’s prison population has declined by almost 1,600 inmates.

But absent permanent statutory or administrative change that is a temporary decrease. There will invariably be a surge of new inmates and the criminal justice system will likely revert to its pre-lockdown growth trajectory. Projections from the consulting firm Mead/Hunt estimate the state could have 28,200 inmates in 10 years. While this estimate may be high, historical growth rates support the likelihood of increasing populations that will further stress an already overcrowded system.

Absent a reduction or reversal of the projected growth in new prisoners or finding someplace else to house them, the state will be forced to begin a large, expensive prison construction program – raising basic questions of how much it will cost and how it could be funded.

Construction Costs:

The Mead/Hunt report commissioned by the state estimates that a single new 1,200-bed maximum security prison will cost approximately $500 million. New housing units that can hold over 1,000 inmates at medium security institutions would cost over $100 million in construction costs each.

Converting the juvenile corrections facility at Lincoln Hills to a 575-inmate adult facility , in the meantime, would cost approximately $35 million for construction alone.

Capital costs aside, if the Mead/Hunt estimate is accurate and the population does grow to over 28,000, the state would also have to find an additional $200 million per year for staff and operating costs at a time when there are both short- and long-term funding constraints.

Revenue and Budget Picture:

Early estimates by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau for April 2020 reveal that the Department of Revenue collected $870 million less in revenue than in April 2019, though much of that shortfall may be the result of moving the tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15.

Economic activity will increase and tax revenues will improve, but it is clear the state will collect less money over the next year than once expected.

DOC already has the largest budget of any state agency, $2.68 billion for 2019-2021. And it will be competing with local governments, schools, the university system, the Department of Health Services, the Department of Transportation and myriad other interests for fewer tax dollars.

The DOC cannot realistically expect to receive additional funding. Instead, it will likely be asked to cut expenditures. Given the size of the current budget, even a modest 5% cut would force the department to find $130 million in cost savings.

Borrowing capacity is also limited. In 2019-2021, the state authorized $1.8 billion in bonding for all new capital projects.

It is highly unlikely that the next budget will see even that level of investment in new construction. But if it does, a single new $500 million maximum security prison alone would consume 27% of the state’s capital budget – and fall far short of solving overcrowding issues.

Conclusion:

Funding even one prison will crowd out many of the state’s other needs and still leave Wisconsin with overcrowded cells, too few institutions and ultimately substantially increased taxes – unless legislators, the governor and the DOC find a way to do what other states have done: responsibly decrease the number of inmates without imperiling safety.

Patrick Hughes is a Badger Institute corrections consultant. He served as assistant deputy secretary and division administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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