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In the United States, states typically pay for prisons, even though the decisions that lead to prison admissions — arresting, charging, and sentencing — are made by local officials. The practice of state subsidies is relatively recent: there were no state prisons in the early part of the country’s history, and even as state institutions began to be developed, they largely supported themselves financially, rendering the notion of subsidies moot. Given the political economy of local decision-making, local preferences are unlikely to result in optimally-sized state prison populations. This Article suggests that since state prison subsidies may not be desirable and are certainly not inevitable, it may be time for states to reconsider paying for prisons.

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