Being “Tough on Crime” Causing States to Go Broke

April 15, 2008

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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The US is The Number 1 Jailer in the World

March 24, 2008

We’re Number One! The United States incarcerates more bodies than any other nation on the planet earth-even Russia, even India, even than China. This premier spot is not only in terms of percentages of prisoners per total population, but also in terms of raw numbers.

The United States has 2,319,258 of its people locked away in jails, while China has only 1.5 million prisoners in spite of its 1.3 billion population and our population of 230 million. Our per capita percentages are 750 per 100,000 people, compared to Russia’s 625 per 100,000. In the United States, there are 1,596,127 prisoners in state and federal prisons and 723,131 prisoners in local jails.

The Pew Center on the States also tells us that all 50 US states combined spent $49 billion on corrections in the year 2007, up from $11 billion twenty years earlier. Our rate of increase in corrections costs was six times greater than for the increase on spending on higher education. The inmate population increased in 2007 in 36 states and in the federal system.

This growing inmate population is taking money from state budgets that cannot afford the extra money, yet is having no apparent impact on recidivism or overall crime, the report said. States are trying to be creative to cut costs without appearing to be “soft on crime.” Kansas and Texas have acted decisively to slow the growth of inmate population, making more use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and using penalties other than reimprisonment for those who technically violate their rules for probation or parole.

The largest percentage increase was in Kentucky (12%), where the state’s governor pointed out that crime has increased only 3 % over the past 30 years, while the state’s inmate population has increased 60%.  The annual cost per prisoner averaged in the US at $23,876, from Rhode Island’s $44,860 to Louisiana’s $13,009 per prisoner. California spent $8.8 billion for corrections in 2007 (with a $16 billion shortage in their budget), while Texas spent $3.3 billion for corrections.

State budgets average 6.8 % of their general funds on corrections, from Oregon’s 10.9 % to Alabama’s 2.6% of general funds. Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, and Connecticut now spend more on corrections than on higher education.

The breakdown of men behind bars is one in 30 men between the ages between 20 and 34, but for black males in that age group, it is one in 9 of the national population.

This is one instance, where I believe, being number one is not a good thing. It is time to look at our overall system and other alternatives to locking up people and throwing away the keys…. Alternatives like faith and character based voluntary programs in prison. Those programs (which could be a whole other topic of discussion at another time) have had a higher rate of success and I believe they should be offered on a widespread basis.

Perhaps these shocking statistics will cause our correctional system do some serious “remodeling” to fix it’s broken system.