WASHINGTON -- The explosion in the number of state and local employees hired to staff prisons will continue for the next few years, according to a new study from the Center for the Study of the States in Albany.
During the 1980s, growth in corrections jobs far outpaced that of any other category of nonfederal public employee, the study says. The number of state prison workers grew 115% from 1980 to 1990, while local prison workers' numbers grew 98%.
Those trends are likely to continue for another couple of years at least as the "get tough on criminals" attitude of the 1980s persists and as governments comply with numerous pending court orders to reduce prison overcrowding, the report says.
"The number of employees seems to be paralleling the number of prisoners," said Sarah Ritchie, co-author of the report and assistant director of the center.
But the tremendous growth in the number of prison workers has started to slow somewhat, Ritchie said. "Some of the preliminary numbers we've seen show that it's increasing at a decreasing rate," she said.
While the number of both state and local prison workers doubled during the 1980s, the "impact was greater at the state level, where corrections accounts for 9.6% of employment as compared to 2% at the local level," the report says.
Including corrections employees, total state employment increased 16.2% during the 1980s, while local government employment expanded 12.5%, according to the report. Excluding corrections, state employment gained 10.7% during that time and local government increased 11.5%. "Corrections by itself accounts for the fact that state employment rose faster than local employment," the report states.
It also predicts that education employment, which accounts for nearly half of all state and local employment, will continue growing through the 1990s. "Education employment will be under considerable upward pressure because enrollment is rising rapidly," the report says.
After declining for several years, school enrollment is currently rising at a 1.5% annual rate, according to the report, which says the National Center for Education Statistics forecasts that public school enrollment will gain 13% throughout the 1990s "as the children of baby boomers have children of their own."
During the 1980s, education employment expanded considerably. In elementary and secondary education alone, states expanded employment by 41% and local governments by about 15%, according to the report. "We shouldn't underestimate the extent to which states have attempted to upgrade education in recent years," Ritchie said.
Combined, state and local governments expanded their total employment by 13.5% from 1980 to 1990, compared with a 9.8% gain in population during the same period. This may seem like a huge gain in public employees, but really is not when compared to other trends, the report says.
It notes that private sector employment increased by 23.3% during the 1980s, "nearly twice as fast as public-sector employment." Also, state and local employment grew much faster during previous decades, with 55% growth during the 1960s, and 34% growth during the 1970s, according to the report.
"To some extent this slowdown [in employment growth] results from increased contracting out. But it also may be an indication that the tax revolt of the late 1970s had a lasting impact," the report says. "It could also reflect the difficulty of expanding the government's share of the economic pie at a time when many households' standard of living is stagnant or declining."
Ritchie noted that the report is important because it dispels the notion that state and local governments grew excessively as their revenues grew during the prosperous 1980s. "The most important thing is to put that in perspective," she said.