A Crack in the Prison Door
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
For Floyd Prozanski, it makes perfect sense to give some prisoners a chance to reduce their time behind bars, provided they complete educational or vocational programs and behave while they are incarcerated.
"You and I on the outside, we have a chance of getting a raise or promotion," says Prozanski, a Democratic state senator from Eugene, Ore. "What better way to teach (prisoners) that there are incentives for them to do well inside the walls?"
Prozanski, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, last year helped craft a law that lets some Oregon inmates trim as much as 30 percent from their sentences through expanded "earned-time credits," which are awarded to prisoners who finish coursework, gain work experience or otherwise work to improve their lives behind bars. Created to save the state money in extremely lean fiscal times, the law has moved up release dates for about 3,500 prisoners, including about 950 who have already been released from prison an average of 55 days ahead of schedule.
But a recent backlash over Oregon's law serves as a reminder of the political pitfalls that can accompany changes in criminal justice policy, particularly when those changes open prison doors earlier for some inmates. California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Wisconsin are among the other states that have recently accelerated prisoner releases or are considering doing so.
Victims' advocates groups have attacked Oregon's law as a threat to public safety, airing a statewide radio ad that paints an ominous picture about the releases' effect on crime rates. Prosecutors and the Democratic state attorney general say the law goes too far and that inmates should be able to shave no more than 15 percent off their sentences through credits, the same percentage the federal government allows. Generating even more opposition is a loophole that lawmakers acknowledge should never have found its way into the law, making some serious criminals eligible for accelerated releases.
"This has been extremely hurtful, and extremely traumatic for crime victims," Steve Doell, president of the group Crime Victims United of Oregon, said during testimony about the law earlier this month.
As to whether accelerated-release programs lead to more crime by those who are released, research shows otherwise. A review by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency of at least 12 studies, for example, found unchanged or lower recidivism rates among prisoners who benefited from accelerated-release programs in states including Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida.
Amid mounting public pressure, Oregon lawmakers last week suspended the earned-time program until 2011 while the state evaluates it. They also made changes to ensure that serious criminals no longer will be eligible for 30 percent sentence reductions when the program resumes. Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski signed the revisions into law over the objections of Republicans, who wanted to repeal the program altogether.
Budget-driven efforts to speed prisoner releases and save states money have touched off political debates elsewhere this year, a major election year in which lawmakers in 46 states face reelection and no candidate wants to be labeled "soft on crime." The debates have raged even in places where inmates have been released just days earlier than they ordinarily would have been.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn nearly lost a Democratic primary this month against the state comptroller, Dan Hynes, who repeatedly attacked him over a program that allowed about 1,700 inmates to get out of prison an average of 37 days early. The initiative came under fire because the state awarded "good-time credits" — which are based on behavior behind bars, rather than participation in programs — to prisoners who had spent most of their sentences in county jails, without being sufficiently monitored by the state. Quinn has called the program a "mistake," and lawmakers have hastily approved changes that would prevent similar releases from happening again.
In California, lawmakers last year approved an expansion of good-time credits that, since the law took effect in January, has allowed at least 2,000 inmates to leave prison ahead of schedule. But the law has sown confusion at the local level over whether it applies to jail inmates as well as state prisoners. Some counties have released hundreds of prisoners early, while law enforcement agencies elsewhere have sued to block the releases, which could become an issue in a governor's race expected to feature Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown.
In Michigan, Republicans are attacking a proposal by Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm to reinstate good-time credits, which lawmakers have phased out, and grant earlier releases to about 7,500 prisoners in an effort to save up to $130 million in the coming fiscal year. "We reject the idea that you can solve the budget problem by depopulating the prisons," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop told the Detroit Free Press , calling Granholm's proposal "insanely shortsighted."
Granholm pushed back in an interview with Stateline.org last week, referring to the fact that Michigan is one of only a handful of states — along with Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and Utah, according to a 2008 survey - that have no good-time credits whatsoever. She rejected the assertion that doing what most other states already do will result in a public safety threat.
"If we don't address that issue, then we're going to continue to plow taxpayer dollars into a corrections system when the states around us that have fewer prisoners and shorter lengths of stay don't have higher crime rates," Granholm, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, said.
Indeed, often lost in the debate over accelerated prison releases is that they are relatively common. Besides the 44 states that allow inmates to earn good-time credits, at least 31 also provide some form of earned-time credits for those who enroll in educational or other programs, according to a study last year by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nevada, for example, allows some inmates to reduce their time by 60, 90 or 120 days if they complete a certificate, diploma or degree while behind bars. In many other states, correctional authorities can grant "compassionate releases" to sick or dying inmates.
In 2003, lawmakers in Washington state passed a law giving some nonviolent drug and property offenders the chance to reduce their sentences by as much as 50 percent in one of the nation's most aggressive expansions of earned-time credits. A 2009 study by the independent Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the program has resulted in lower recidivism rates among those who have been released ahead of schedule. But it also found an increase in property crimes after the change went into effect.
The institute's finding on recidivism has made Washington a model for lawmakers in other states that have sought accelerated prisoner releases, and is frequently mentioned by criminologists.
"Length of stay has nothing to do with the recidivism rate," Todd Clear, the incoming dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says. "If I let someone out (early), I'm not increasing the chances of them committing a crime. I'm just changing the date."
Despite the studies, politicians and corrections officials are keenly aware that a single, well-publicized crime by an inmate who has been granted accelerated release can call entire programs into question, virtually overnight. In California, for instance, outrage over the state's good-time credits has been exacerbated by the early release of a Sacramento County inmate who was arrested in connection with an attempted rape less than 24 hours after walking free.
For that reason, Clear believes, early-release initiatives are a recipe for political disaster. "The minute you let a bunch of people out early, you own everything they do," he says — a point acknowledged by Granholm.
"I think any changes in the corrections system can certainly be exploited by political gain by those who want to do so," Granholm says. "And it's true in every state in the country."
- Stateline.org staff writer Melissa Maynard contributed to this report.