David Cox | Thinking strategically

Our legislators are back at it in Richmond. A couple of weeks into a session that, everyone knows, has got to tackle some excruciating budgetary problems, they seem — as so often — to have produced more heat than light. I often wonder what they’re thinking. Especially when someone comes up with a good, if difficult, idea that might actually help us all out.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that this is a time when the economy demands that all of us, particularly those in government, think strategically. That is, consider ideas that will maximize advantages and minimize disadvantages, creating as much good while causing as little burden as possible. Slashing Medicaid assistance, for example, doesn’t lower health costs so much as it transfers them; rather than reducing the tab, “cuts” like these just pass the bill to others to pay — ultimately, to us the consumers.

So when an idea comes along that will actually reduce costs, I believe it’s worth pondering. Seriously. Very seriously.

Take, for instance, Gov. Kaine’s idea to release certain prisoners a bit earlier. Those he has in mind must have all but finished their sentences, for crimes that are non-violent, have been in jail at least a year, and who have demonstrated that they are not likely to threaten public safety — in other words, they’re not going to endanger the rest of us. These are people who are definitely going to be released; in fact, current policy allows them to be out 30 days ahead of schedule. The governor would extend that early release to 90 days. The police, incidentally, seem to go along with the idea.

Savings to the taxpayers? About $5 million a year. Not much, but I’d take it.

Plus, freeing up state prison space would allow inmates in local jails to move into the prison system, relieving some of the burden that localities like ours now assume.

But oh, the tizzy that idea produced!

“A wild-haired idea,” fumed one legislator. He then claimed that, by releasing prisoners into this lousy economy, they might not get jobs and thereby resort to criminal behavior. By that logic, either the economy will miraculously improve in those final two months of their confinement, or they ought never to be set free until prosperity returns. What strategy is that?

Some say, “They don’t deserve it.” Of course they don’t: Do the crime, do the time. But do we taxpayers deserve the privilege of paying $5 million per year to insist that they do every last day of the time? What strategy is that?

By ending parole and boosting sentences, the tough-on-crime crowd has guaranteed prosperity for those who build and run jails. Virginia now spends about a billion dollars a year on our prisons. I’m not sure that anyone realized, or even strategically considered, the financial consequences: they didn’t count the cost. Is it one we really want to pay for?

No question, some lawbreakers need to be locked up, perhaps forever. Yet, here’s a small case of some strategic thinking that might slow down the ever-growing prison bill.

Yes, it amputates a little bit of a sacred cow. But now’s the time to take a look at all our sacred cows– health care, social services, education, and even the cost of running the legislature—to see what can be trimmed.

Sacred cows are expensive. Do we taxpayers really want to pay their full price any more?

 

– Column by David Cox

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