Prisons. A stable and growing part of the economy.

Two things happened yesterday. First, I published this major post about the role prisons play in the U.S. economy. Later yesterday evening, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released new data about people in prison. Any surprise? The number continued to rise.

Yes, crime continues to decline; and yes, “soft on crime” was absent from this year’s election debate. But still the U.S. locks up more and more people.

We have 2.3 million people behind bars. 1 out of every 100 adults overall. 1 out of 9 black man in his twenties. Our rates of incarceration are seven times historical and international norms, and we spend about $200 billion every year on the crime control industry. But still we build.

Part of the problem (and the solution) is in criminal justice policy – sentencing and parole practice, in particular. We can and should find smart, cost-effective ways to keep people safe. But part of the problem is also in economic policy. Not just the recession, which will probably push crime up soon enough, but in the role that prisons play in rural economies.

Rural America has been struggling for years. Prisons are often offered as a quick fix. Instant jobs with government benefits.

No, they don’t work well for economic development in the long run. And yes, many of the best jobs go to people from out of town. But it isn’t presented that way by rural politicians looking for rural votes from people who are genuinely looking for work.

That’s why I proposed a grant program by the federal government to help states cover transitional costs to move from prison economies to more productive purposes. It would help the rural economies, where people would rather find work without razor wire fencing, and it could free states to redirect their own resources out of prisons and into other state uses – from schools to roads to hospitals.

It’s just one thing. But it’s not only the change we need. It’s something that needs to change.

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