Govs' Q & A: Rethinking Prison Time

 

With corrections costs rising and tax revenues falling, governors in a handful of states - including Kentucky, New York, Virginia and Wisconsin - recently have sought to save millions of dollars by shortening the time some prisoners spend behind bars.

The governors' proposals - ranging from early release for some inmates deemed "low-risk" and expanded earned-time credits for those who demonstrate good behavior - in some cases have met with sharp opposition. Critics say releasing prisoners early, even if they are considered "nonviolent," could threaten public safety and is an unacceptable way for states to save money.

Stateline caught up with Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) at the National Governors Association meeting Feb. 21 in Washington, D.C., to ask them about their plans for reducing inmates' time - and about the political risks accompanying their proposals.

Beshear's plan, which went into effect last year, allows some inmates who return to prison from parole to be credited with the time they served on parole, effectively shortening their sentences.

The Virginia General Assembly Feb 28 rejected Kaine's proposal to allow corrections officials to use their discretion to free some inmates up to 90 days early. Current law allows releases 30 days early.

You're among a number of governors who have looked at allowing some low-risk, nonviolent offenders to reduce their criminal sentences. Is this still politically dangerous territory for governors?

 

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D):
One of the biggest problems that exist in most states is the ever-increasing cost of your corrections system and keeping people locked up.

Kentucky last year, I believe, had the largest percent increase, about a 12 percent increase (in incarceration costs). We're right now paying $20(000) to $22,000 a year to incarcerate a person. What I want us to do is to be smart about our system. (I) don't want to be soft on crime; I want to be smart about crime. I've got two goals. One is to protect the public. And the second goal is, while we're protecting the public, let's find some ways that we can cut down on the cost, if possible.

We're … able to do that. We have worked with the legislature and have allowed folks that are nonviolent offenders to get credit. We really didn't shorten any time, but they ended up getting credit for the time ... that they were out on parole and then they had a technical parole violation and were put back in. So we've given them credit for the time that they were out on parole in terms of their entire time that was served. ... It has cut down our expense to some degree.

Right now we've got a thousand people in prison for failure to pay child support. And while that's a horrible crime and they need to be punished, in a facetious way you can say it would be cheaper if the state just paid the child support as opposed to paying $22,000 a year to keep that person in.

We just need to find ways of delivering appropriate punishment to people like that but, at the same time, not incur a huge cost - if we can avoid it - of incarcerating.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D):
I think it is much less so (politically dangerous territory) than it used to be.

I'm not saying everybody should do what I'm doing. But we analyzed the Virginia budget and we looked at areas were we spent above national averages and below national averages, and we generally spend below national averages in just about everything. We're real efficient.

But the one area where we spent a lot above national averages is incarceration costs. And the growth of incarceration costs has been very dramatic - much higher than higher ed, for example. So we're trying to go at those areas where we're above national averages and whittle it down.

We think that one way for us to do that effectively is (to pursue) strategies consistent with public safety, where nonviolent offenders either can be ...diverted out of jail into other programs or get out a little bit earlier.

Do you think that the current economic crisis will change the conversation about corrections policy?

 

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D):
I think that conversation has changed in Kentucky and it's changing elsewhere, in terms of being smart about this. We all have as a first priority protecting the public. We all have as a second priority meting out just punishment for crimes. But we all also have a third priority, and that is: Aren't there some smarter ways of doing this under certain circumstances?

Our legislature right now is working with me to look at other areas that we might be able to address here. We're looking at the penal code. We're looking at the whole system to see if there are ways that we can make further strides in this area.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D):
I think it does. I think we're all going to have to be really analyzing expenditures. And you ought to analyze every expenditure. But when one expenditure is rising so dramatically quicker than others, it ought to call your attention and make you think ... 'Maybe we're doing something wrong here.'

The theme of this year's NGA conference was infrastructure. Last year's was clean energy. Can you envision a future governors' meeting focusing on corrections?

 

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D):
Certainly, because it is a big problem for all of us. I think as we continue to try to control our cost, it takes a lot of thinking from a lot of different places to figure out the best things to do, and the right things to do.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D):
Sure. I definitely could. I've been here four years. We've had health, we've had innovation, we've had clean energy and infrastructure. ...I only have four years, so I won't be around as a governor for that one, but I could see that as part of the dialogue, sure.

 
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