Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States To Free Inmates 

  Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States To Free Inmates 

Posted by CN Staff on May 05, 2008 at 19:53:00 PT
By Keith B. Richburg and Ashley Surdin, WP Writers 
Source: Washington Post 

New York -- Reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug offenders, many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as dangerously naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up.It is a theory that has long been pushed by criminal justice advocates and liberal politicians -- that some felons, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses, would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior. 
But the states' conversion to that view has less to do with a change of heart on crime than with stark fiscal realities. At a time of shrinking resources, prisons are eating up an increasing share of many state budgets."It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now."Mauer and other observers point to a number of recent actions, some from states facing huge budget shortfalls, some not, but still worried about exploding costs.· To ease the overcrowding and save California about $1.1 billion over two years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed freeing about 22,000 prisoners convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses 20 months earlier than their scheduled release dates. He also wants to place them on unsupervised parole, saving the state the cost of having all parolees assigned to an agent.· Lawmakers in Providence, R.I., approved an expansion last week of the state's "good time" early-release rules to cover more inmates serving shorter sentences. The new rules, which will put more inmates under post-prison supervision, are expected to save Rhode Island an estimated $8 billion over five years.· In Kentucky, where 22,000 state inmates are housed in county prisons and private facilities, lawmakers agreed to allow certain nonviolent, nonsexual offenders to serve up to 180 days of their sentences at home, and to make it easier for prisoners to earn credit for good behavior. The move could save the state, which is facing a $900 million deficit over the next two years, as much as $30 million.· In Mississippi, where the prison population has doubled during the past dozen years to 22,600, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has signed into law two measures that will reduce it: One to let certain nonviolent offenders go free after serving 25 percent of their sentences, and the other to release some terminally ill inmates.· South Carolina, meanwhile, is looking to abolish parole, in part to slow the growth of its prison population since there would be fewer people returned to prison for parole violations.Proposals to free prisoners are still met with opposition, particularly from law enforcement officials who fear that a flood of released felons could return to their communities, and from victims groups that worry that justice is being sacrificed for budgetary concerns.The California plan has drawn criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the state's nonpartisan fiscal adviser, which warned that 63,000 mid-level offenders would "effectively go unpunished, serving little or no prison time" and would not have active supervision.The proposal also worries local governments and police in California, particularly in Los Angeles County -- home to the nation's largest prison system, which supplies about a third of the state's prison population. "It's kind of like the volcano has erupted," County Sheriff Lee Baca said. "To let out 63,000 prisoners on summary parole -- which means no parole -- is not good policy."Bob Pack, 52, of Danville, Calif., is particularly disturbed by the prospect of softer punishment forthose convicted of drunken driving. In 2003, Pack's two children -- Troy, 10, and Alana, 7 -- were struck and killed when a drunk driver's car jumped a curb and ran onto a neighborhood sidewalk. The driver had three prior drunken-driving convictions.Said Pack: "I guarantee you that if this program is fulfilled, somewhere down the road -- it could be three months or a year -- there's going to be a family in court over the death of a loved one, because of someone who got out early."But for now, state officials are finding themselves under mounting pressure to cut costs and are looking at their rising prison population.Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States. During the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent.In the Northeastern states, according to the Pew report, prison spending over the past 20 years has risen 61 percent, while higher education spending has declined by 5.5 percent.California -- which has the country's worst fiscal crisis, with a potential shortfall of $20 billion -- has seen its prison-related spending swell to $10.4 billion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. About 170,000 inmates are packed into California's 33 prisons, which were designed to hold 100,000. About 15,000 prisoners are being housed in emergency beds, in converted classrooms and gymnasiums.Rhode Island's prison population peaked and its 4,000-inmate prison capacity was exceeded in recent years, prompting a lawsuit and a court settlement. "The soaring inmate census has created a crisis here," said Ashbel T. Wall, the state's corrections director. "We've been busting the budget continuously. . . . Our prisons have been packed."New Jersey is one state making changes out of a desire for more efficiency. Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) is proposing legislation to expand drug courts to channel more nonviolent, first-time drug offenders into treatment instead of prisons, and also to expand supervised parole. Another proposal would change the parole policy so parolees were not automatically returned to prison for minor drug offenses, said Lilo Stainton, the governor's spokeswoman.She said that in New Jersey's case, the changes are not budget-driven. "We think this is a more humane and sensible way to treat people," she said.Michigan is grappling with a massive prison population, mainly because "truth in sentencing" rules make the state less generous about granting paroles. Michigan's incarceration rate is 47 percent higher than that of the other Great Lakes states, according to experts.Michigan has become one of the few states that actually spend more on prisons than on higher education -- about $2 billion for prisons, and $1.9 billion in state aid to its 15 public universities and 28 community colleges. "It's insane," said Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending in Lansing. "The governor is always talking about how we need to be high tech. But these days, the best career opportunity is to get a job as a prison guard."In fact, according to Thomas Clay, a prisons and budget expert with Michigan's nonprofit Citizens Research Council, the state government employed 70,000 people in 1980, including 5,000 working for the prisons system. Today, the number of state workers has dropped to 54,000, but 17,000 work for the prisons."You've got two decades of failed policies," said Laura Sager a consultant in Michigan for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said mandatory sentencing laws and tough penalties for drug offenses in the 1980s "bloated prisons and prison populations, and the taxpayer is paying a very high price."Now with states struggling with budget deficits, she said, "you have pressures that make it palatable to take a second look."Surdin reported from Los Angeles.Complete Title: Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates EarlySource: Washington Post (DC)Author: Keith B. Richburg and Ashley Surdin, Washington Post Staff WritersPublished: Monday, May 5, 2008; A01Copyright: 2008 Washington Post Contact: letterstoed washpost.comWebsite: Justice Archives

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Comment #5 posted by SamFox on May 08, 2008 at 21:29:06 PT:
Don't step on the grass Sam!
Looks like the realities of the non existent recession are catching up to to gov. agencies. Gee! I'm all in tears! Of joy!!!If you have yet to, check out LEAP at people have some very good insights on why the drug war has become an endless merry-go-round. Yers for RE-legalization!!!
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Comment #3 posted by John Tyler on May 06, 2008 at 18:21:00 PT

money money money
You might say it's about the money. It's always about the money. It looks like the War on Cannabis users can't be financed much longer in additon to the Terror War, the housing crisis, the fuel crisis, the food crisis, the health care crisis and whatever else the politicians may get us into. Dig it! The politicains and the big corporations screw up and the people have to work hard to fix it and pay for it all.
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Comment #2 posted by museman on May 06, 2008 at 08:39:30 PT

I demand to know
When are you false-authority types going stop playing god, and get real?Who gave you the 'right' to imprison anybody in the first place? I certainly don't remember signing the petition.If your false values weren't completely in error to begin with, there would be no real crime anyway. But we now know that dominance, control, and the illusion of wealth and debt is all that your game is, and was ever about. The truth about who is really committing crimes is well established at this point, so you government stooges, and political clown acts better get ready for the application of truth, your rug of BS has been pulled -what are you standing on now?
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Comment #1 posted by OverwhelmSam on May 06, 2008 at 07:53:05 PT

Better Headline
Drug War Collapsing Under It's Own WeightIt appears that politicians set policy based on money. That's why suing government is so effective.
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