Report: States Seeking Prison Solutions
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
At least 18 states took steps last year to free up space at overcrowded prisons, prevent recidivism and otherwise stem the rising costs of corrections, according to " The State of Sentencing 2007 ," a review of last year's major criminal justice trends in the states. Actions included amending or agreeing to study sentencing or parole policies, expanding inmate rehabilitation programs and tweaking other criminal justice practices.
The study was conducted by The Sentencing Project , a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that pushes for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and other changes to state and federal criminal justice policies.
According to the report, four states ( Arkansas , California , Nevada and Wisconsin ) in 2007 approved the early release of some low-risk prisoners. In Nevada , for example, lawmakers expanded "good-time credits" to let some inmates return to society. California legislators granted local jail administrators the power to release some offenders convicted of misdemeanors.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) this month announced a much broader plan to release as many as 22,000 low-risk offenders from the Golden State 's crowded prison system to rein in spending by the state Department of Corrections. California is facing an overall budget shortfall of more than $14 billion over the next year and a half.
The study identified four states (California, Hawaii , Louisiana and Washington ) that last year expanded "re-entry services" to help inmates transition to life outside prison and ensure they don't return. As many as half of those behind bars return to prison within three years of their release, the report said.
Meanwhile, three states (Colorado, Maine and Nevada) set up panels to study the effectiveness of current sentencing practices, while two other states (New Mexico and Pennsylvania) directed existing commissions to study specific aspects of their sentencing schemes, such as use of mandatory minimums.
Taken together, last year's state laws represent a shift in thinking among lawmakers, according to the report.
"Although legislative sessions seldom close without some penalty enhancements being added to the criminal code, the tone and focus of many state legislative bodies has demonstrably shifted and, as a result, there is increasing opportunity for reform," the report said.
In an interview with Stateline.org , the study's author, Ryan King, said state lawmakers are more willing to change criminal justice policies because of the financial pressures states are under. Corrections trails only health care, education and transportation in taking state dollars.
"There's simply not enough money in state budgets," King said. "That has brought a lot of legislators to the table with a willingness to look at alternatives (to building prisons)."
There are signs states will continue to seek alternatives to prison construction this year. In his State of the State address Jan. 7, for example, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) proposed converting a warehouse to a 304-bed rehabilitation center to help inmates with drug and alcohol problems to ensure they don't break the law again.