Acton Institute Powerblog

Imprisonment and Government Expenditures

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There’s a lot of consternation, much of it justified, about the news that now 1% of the population of the United States is incarcerated. Especially noteworthy is a comparison of the rate of imprisonment with institutionalization in mental health facilities over the last century.

But a breathless headline like this just cannot pass without some comment: “Michigan is 1 of 4 states to spend more on prison than college.”

Given the fact that policing, including imprisonment, is pretty clearly a legitimate function of the state (at least as broadly conceived in the Christian tradition, see Romans 13), while providing post-secondary education is not so obviously a responsibility for the government (n.b. I did go to a state school), maybe more states should spend more on prison than college…leaving college to private institutions.

Maybe this just means Michigan’s state government has its spending priorities more in order than other states. That truly would be newsworthy.

Update: Sometime PowerBlog contributor and longtime friend of Acton John H. Armstrong takes a look at the numbers and concludes, “For the overwhelming majority of inmates they are where they should be and we are all much safer, so it seems.” I think Ray expressed some similar sentiments in the office yesterday.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Interesting juxtaposition.

    I think the key error made by the left here is to imagine that they can measure everything a society does by what the state in question does. I would probably be inclined to suspect that a society that spent more on incarceration than on school was distorted. But what the state spends on education is only part of what the society as a whole spends on education, while it is probably the entirety of its expenditure on incarceration. Further, society is healthier when it spends a lot on school in ways that do not involve the state.

    I do question Armstrong’s interpretation of the statistics, however. Just the other night I heard Charlie Rose and Michael Crichton discuss the drop in crime, with the suggestion of a different cause: fewer young adult males as a proportion of the population. Now they may be wrong as well. But correlation does not equal causation. Whatever correlation is presented needs to be argued and not merely asserted. In the meantime, I’m going to suspect that far too many people are locked up.