Strapped States Eye Prison Savings
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
Faced with a surging prison population and a state budget more than $1 billion in the red, Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky lawmakers last year took a dramatic step that they hoped would save $30 million over two years: granting early release to more than 1,800 inmates, including some felons convicted of murder, rape and other violent crimes.
Kentucky's prisoner release plan, which touched off a political firestorm and prompted a court challenge from the state's attorney general - like Beshear, a Democrat - is an example of the difficult criminal justice decisions some states could face this year.
From California to Connecticut, states are under mounting pressure to bring corrections spending in line with the reality of gaping budget shortfalls.
Lawmakers in some states are slashing prisoner rehabilitation programs, releasing inmates early or packing them more tightly into crowded facilities to save money. Others are using technology, such as satellite tracking, to monitor sex offenders, drunken drivers and other criminals instead of keeping them behind bars. To avoid building new prisons, many states ship inmates to private facilities that often are thousands of miles away.
Other states are exploring long-term strategies aimed at preventing recidivism, a leading factor behind overcrowded prisons and jails - and rising costs. At any given time, more than 2.3 million people are locked up in federal, state and local facilities in the United States, and more than half of those released from prison are back behind bars within three years, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"We're at a crossroads. I think there is an acknowledgment that if we continue the status quo, we're going to continue to have a prison population that increases to untenable levels," said Ryan S. King, a policy analyst with The Sentencing Project, which lobbies for changes in sentencing laws as a way to reduce incarceration rates.
For the first time, one in every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars, according to a February 2008 report by the Public Safety Performance Project (which, like Stateline.org , is part of the Pew Center on the States). The booming prison population cost states nearly $50 billion in 2007, but the high incarceration rate has had no discernable effect "either on recidivism or overall crime," the report said.
Nationally, corrections trails only health care, education and transportation in consuming state dollars. Prison spending increased 127 percent from 1987 to 2007, and at least five states - Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont - now spend as much or more on corrections as they do on higher education, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers and the Public Safety Performance Project.
The statistics are alarming state lawmakers in all regions of the country and, increasingly, on both sides of the political aisle. Criminal justice reform - for years a controversial issue for legislators wary of being labeled "soft on crime" - is finding new proponents as public officials seek ways to save money. But a single strategy to tackle incarceration costs has yet to emerge, and some critics say state policymakers are dragging their feet and avoiding comprehensive changes that have become necessary.
King and other advocates of sentencing reform say the nation's incarceration rate will continue to rise unless criminal penalties are reduced, even for felons serving 20 years or more. They support curtailing or eliminating mandatory-minimum sentences and want to change other policies, such as "truth in sentencing," that restrict parole opportunities for many offenders.
"That's a difficult conversation, but it's one that - if we really want to address the growth of the prison population - we need to have," King said. He singled out California, home to a prison system so strained it faces a federal takeover, as a state where sentencing reforms are urgent. "We're talking about huge, huge issues, and they're all the way back at the starting line, quibbling about the rules of the race," he said.
Releasing prisoners early - which remains a politically explosive way to cut costs in some cases - has emerged as a common strategy, debated or approved in at least eight states last year. Some, such as Alabama and North Carolina, agreed to release elderly or terminally ill inmates who cost taxpayers millions for health care while behind bars; at least 34 other states also allow so-called compassionate releases of prisoners who pose little threat to society.
But Kentucky and other states have considered much more aggressive plans that apply to the general inmate population: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), for example, sought to free more than 22,000 offenders, including thieves and drunken drivers, from California's severely crowded prison system. But state lawmakers rebuffed his plan as too risky.
Crimes committed by released prisoners can spark public outrage and re-evaluation of corrections policy. In Pennsylvania, a man granted parole by the state last August fatally shot a Philadelphia police officer a month later, prompting Gov. Ed Rendell (D) to temporarily halt the parole process to conduct a "top-to-bottom review." In December, the review concluded the prisoner was properly released but recommended a series of improvements to the parole system.
Kentucky's prisoner release program also drew criticism when a newspaper reported that at least 14 percent of those released were accused of committing new crimes within months, even though recidivism rates nationwide typically are much higher.
Other states are trying different approaches to save money. In cash-strapped Massachusetts, where state prisons are operating at nearly 50 percent above capacity, the state corrections chief last year proposed double-bunking inmates at a maximum-security facility and called for legislation to ease mandatory-minimum sentences, which he said were partly to blame for overcrowding. Elsewhere, budget cuts have targeted rehabilitation programs. A budget crisis in New York forced cuts to substance-abuse programs for ex-offenders in New York City. Nevada scaled back education for inmates at some facilities.
Drug courts - which exist in all 50 states and permit drug users to avoid jail time if they meet rigorous sobriety and other conditions set by a judge - also could be a target for funding reductions, despite evidence that they are successful. More than 70 percent of those who participate in drug courts avoid incarceration, said C. West Huddleston III, executive director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
But Huddleston said he expects less funding because of states' budget problems.
"My experience in the last decade of working in policy is that, pretty much 100 percent of the time, drug dependent offenders are at the end of the line when it comes to funding priorities," he said. "It is my fear that in these lean times … legislatures [might] see drug court as just an extra expense on the books that they can cut to save money."
Not all states are relying solely on cutbacks. A politically and geographically diverse group of states, including Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont, last year launched new efforts to help offenders during and after their time in the criminal justice system.
In Arizona, the Republican Legislature teamed up with Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, a former prosecutor who was tapped for President Barack Obama's Cabinet, to approve a program that rewards counties whose recidivism rate is significantly reduced. Kansas approved a similar program two years ago. Arizona's program includes incentives for people on probation; they can reduce their sentences by 20 days for each month they comply with court-ordered conditions of their probation, such as making child-support payments and undergoing therapy.
Barbara Broderick, chief probation officer in Maricopa County, Ariz., said earned time credits for probationers provide a carrot-and-stick approach that previously focused only on sending delinquent offenders to jail or prison.
"What I didn't have," she told Stateline.org , "is the option to say, 'Work with me. Lead a law-abiding life. Do the things the court has ordered.'"
In Pennsylvania, Rendell and the politically divided Legislature worked together last year to enact a reform package that, among other things, expands rehabilitation opportunities for inmates and offers earned-time credits. It also shifts offenders from crowded local jails to more secure state facilities.
Plans to address recidivism such as those in Arizona and Pennsylvania have enjoyed bipartisan support in part because they do not reduce criminal sentences and can pay off in smaller prison populations. But experts still point out that the recent emphasis on helping ex-prisoners become productive members of society contrasts sharply with the "tough-on-crime" policies that became popular during the 1970s and 1980s, when rampant use of crack cocaine fueled an increase in crime.
Even in the fiercely partisan hallways of Washington, D.C., so-called re-entry programs have attracted support. Congress last year passed the Second Chance Act, which authorizes millions of dollars in grants to state and local governments to help rehabilitate former offenders. President George W. Bush signed the act into law in April, though it was not immediately funded.
"After 20 years of going down the 'tough-on-crime' road and seeing what it has wrought, we now know better," U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va), a backer of the Second Chance Act, told a group of criminal justice professionals in a speech at George Washington University.
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both supported the Second Chance Act as members of the U.S. Senate, and there are strong expectations that the administration will fund the act.
This story is included in Stateline.org's "State of the States 2009," which chronicles the significant developments of the past year and looks ahead to 2009.