Updated: January 14, 2013 7:25AM
As the national debate over budgets, deficits and spending reiterates, almost everyone favors leaner government spending.
The concept of smaller government is a philosophical pillar because it’s attractive and unburdened by the small print, which reveals how those who benefit from government would lose a tangible benefit. But the real world runs on the small print.
Every dollar spent by government has a constituency. But you can’t spend less without actually spending less. That’s why we hope the debate is over on Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close four prisons, including the underused youth prison in Joliet, and three transitional centers for inmates to save an estimated $100 million.
The Illinois Supreme Court this week ruled that the closings can occur, allowing taxpayers a down payment on frugality, albeit a tiny one that’s been delayed unnecessarily (the closings were to occur Oct. 31).
The unions representing prison guards and employees fought hard against Quinn’s plan, citing prison overcrowding and the need for jobs. But they have the ultimate conflict of interest — they’re the ones who will lose jobs.
The intensity of the debate reflects how cutting government budgets can be excruciating, even if it makes sense. In 2011, the Pew Center found that Illinois spends $38,268 to house each of its 45,551 inmates. The nation has roughly 2.3 million citizens in prison or jail. No country imprisons more of its citizens than we do.
But the cost of incarcerating people in Illinois is much larger than most people think. The Pew Center found that about a third of the money spent annually on prisons in Illinois (about $550 million) does not show up in the budget. It’s part of Illinois’ massive and never-ending budget deficit.
Closing these prisons and centers is justifiable. It’s not a large move to resolve the state’s budget woes, but it is an early step on what’s going to have to be a long road to return Illinois to fiscal solvency. And it can have a side benefit — giving state officials breathing room to determine if too many people are being locked up.