Shifting funds from one state or local agency to another is bureaucratically and politically difficult—made more so by negotiations with unions that represent correctional officers. Yet it makes little sense to keep funding incarceration at the same level when it is needed less and less.

Beyond the wastefulness, it may create a perverse incentive to fill the empty cells. Although causation is hard to prove, fewer people are serving out sentences in local jails, and more are being held in jail pretrial (PDF).

The process of shrinking prisons—and their budgets—could be sped along by releasing prisoners who are no longer threats to society. Many such discussions focus on diverting young first-time offenders. But this ignores the new reality of prisons: There are now more people 55 and older in state prisons than aged 18 to 24—a complete reversal from 20 years ago. America is increasingly spending its tax dollars locking up older people.

Read the full article about defunding prisons by Shawn D. Bushway and Nidhi Kalra at RAND Corporation.