Being “Tough on Crime” Causing States to Go Broke

The Associated Press reports at least eight states are considering freeing prison inmates or sending some of them to rehabilitation programs instead of prison. The Associated Press analyzed legislative proposals of several states to find this trend.

Officials in these states acknowledge this idea carries risks, but they believe they have no choice because of the huge gaps in their state budgets resulting from the slow down in the economy. If these programs are adopted, the early release programs could save an estimated $450 million in California and Kentucky alone.

A Rhode Island proposal would allow inmates to deduct up to 12 days from their sentence for every month they follow rules and work in prison. Even some violent offenders would be eligible but not those serving life sentences.

A Mississippi plan would offer early parole for people convicted of selling marijuana or prescription drugs. New Jersey, South Carolina and Vermont are considering sending drug-addicted offenders into treatment, which is cheaper than prison.

Victim safety is a concern for those focusing on violent crimes, and safety of the community is always stated as a high priority in the stated goals of any proposal. But the legislatures must cut costs somewhere, and prisons are “one of the most expensive parts of the criminal justice system,” said Alsion Lawrence, who studies corrections policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That is where they look to first to cut down some of those costs.”

Rhode Island Corrections Director A.T. Wall was not sure how many prisoners could be freed early. The savings might not even be $1,000,000 for the first year, but that figure would likely increase over time.

In California where everything is bigger, the legislature is trying to cut a $16 billion deficit in half by this summer. Governor Schwarzenegger proposed saving $400 million by releasing more than 22,000 inmates who had less than 20 months remaining on their sentences. Violent and sex offenders would not be eligible. Eliminating prison guard positions and making it more difficult to re-imprison parole violators would contribute to some of these savings.

Of course, California’s proposal has its critics, predictably from law enforcement and conservative lawmakers. Particularly they criticize the impact of the proposal on sentences for car thieves, drunk drivers, forgers and some drug dealers because the typical sentence for these is less than 20 months. The result on those typically convicted for these crimes in California would be zero time behind bars, and the critics say this would take away the deterrence for such crimes.

The Kentucky legislature approved on April 2nd a proposal which would save nearly $50 million toward its $1.3 billion budget deficit. This plan would grant early release to perhaps 2,000 inmates, violent and sexual offenders exempt, once again. The Governor of Kentucky noted it had to do something after a 12% inmate population increase in 2007, the largest in the nation. Kentucky spends $18,600 per year to house one inmate.

Mississippi faces an inmate population which has tripled since the state enacted stricter sentencing policies in 1994. Its legislature is now considering making 7,000 drug offenders eligible for early parole. Currently they are required to serve 85% of their sentences. Under the new proposal they would only have to serve about a quarter of their sentences.

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