To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies

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To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies

Post  Yoke on Wed May 13, 2009 11:23 am

Published: March 24, 2009
CARSON CITY, Nev. — For nearly three decades, most states have dealt with lawbreakers in two ways: lock more of them up for longer periods, and build more prisons to hold them. Now many governments, out of money and buried under mounting prison costs, are reversing those policies and practices.

Jeffrey Sauger for The New York Times
The Deerfield Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich., was closing, so inmates were put on a bus to be transported to another prison, in Muskegon.

Jeffrey Sauger for The New York Times
Corrections officers at Deerfield carrying chains for the final 33 of 1,200 prisoners being transferred to another prison.

Some states, like Colorado and Kansas, are closing prisons. Others, like New Jersey, have replaced jail time with community programs or other sanctions for people who violate parole. Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill this month that enhances the credits some inmates can earn toward release.

Michigan is doing a little of all of this, in addition to freeing some offenders who have yet to serve their maximum sentence. And last Wednesday, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, signed legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty, which aside from ethical concerns was seen as costly.

Being tough on crime and sentencing has long been the clear path toward job retention for state lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike. But the economic crisis is forcing them to take a more pragmatic approach as prisoners are increasingly seen less as indistinct wrongdoers and more as expenses that must be reined in.

“When state budgets are flush,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, “prisons are something that governors and legislators all support, and they don’t want to touch sentencing reform. But when dollars are as tight as they are now, you have to make really tough choices. And so now things are in play.”

Recessions tend to prompt changes to corrections policies. After the recession at the start of this decade, numerous states enacted laws eliminating some long mandatory minimum sentences; several began to offer early release and treatment options to some drug offenders. Those changes, though, were far less reaching than what is happening now and did little to curb exploding corrections budgets.

In the past 20 years, correction department budgets have quadrupled and are outpacing every major spending area outside health care, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States. With 7.3 million Americans in prison, on parole or under probation, states spent $47 billion in 2008, the study said.

Faced with such costs, even states known for being particularly tough on crime are revisiting their policies and laws.

“In Kentucky, our prison budget is approaching half a billion dollars,” said J. Michael Brown, secretary of the State Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. “And as dollars get scarce, it forces a tremendous amount of scrutiny.”

The annual cost to keep someone in prison varies by state, and the type of institution, but the typical cost cited by states is about $35,000, said Peggy Burke of the Center for Effective Public Policy, a nonprofit group that works with local governments on criminal justice matters.

The most pervasive cost-saving trend among corrections departments has been to look closely at parole systems, in which it is no longer cost-effective to monitor released inmates, largely because too many violate their terms, often on technicalities, and end up back in prison. In California, among the few states to mandate parole for all convicts, parole violators — not new offenders — account for the largest percentage of inmates entering the system.

New Jersey recently began a program for some offenders on parole with technical violations, like failing to report to a parole officer or changing their address without the officer’s approval. Rather than being returned to jail, those former inmates are sent to a center for a clinical assessment of their risks and needs. With that change, the state is on track to save $16.2 million this fiscal year.

Other states are shortening paroles, or even sentences, to save money.

In Kentucky, Gov. Steven L. Beshear, a Democrat, is about to sign a bill that makes permanent a pilot program that offers qualifying inmates credit for time served on parole against sentence dates, in part to avoid a pattern of inmates’ choosing to stay in prison rather than risking later parole violations. The trial program saved the state $12 million last year. The state has also adopted a program that gives treatment rather than jail time to select drug offenders.

In California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has called for $400 million to be cut from the state’s corrections budget, officials are seeking to remove low-level drug offenders from the parole supervision system and to provide them treatment options instead.

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Like other states making such changes, California is led by a governor who long opposed such shifts in prison policies. But Mr. Schwarzenegger, as well as other leaders and lawmakers who are far more conservative, has come around to a view held by advocates of sentencing and prison reform that longer sentences do little to reduce recidivism among certain nonviolent criminals.

“In California we are out of room and we’re out of money,” said the state’s corrections secretary, Matthew Cate. “It may be time to take some of these steps that we should have taken long ago.”

Several states are also looking at sentencing itself. In New York, for example, Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, has proposed an overhaul of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws that impose lengthy mandatory sentences on many nonviolent drug offenders.

Some states are simply consolidating operations and closing prisons, which is controversial among lawmakers and often riles a community. Colorado, Kansas, Michigan and New Jersey have all shut down or announced the closing of at least one prison. Others are proposing to do so.

Here in Carson City, home to one of the oldest state prisons in the country, the state estimates it would save $18 million a year by closing the prison. But the idea has rattled employees, some of whom have followed their parents’ career paths, and the community, which considers the prison a provider of jobs and an important piece of Nevada history.

“We are the oldest prison west of the Mississippi,” the warden, Greg Smith, said during a tour last week. “And the staff here takes a lot of pride in that.”

The 220-year-old prison is older than the state of Nevada, and the buildings, according to officials, sit on land filled with saber-toothed tiger prints. It first housed men who gave “firewater” to Indians and is where the state’s license plates are made. But the prison’s aging facilities have raised questions about its efficiency compared with modern counterparts.

The lament is similar in Michigan, where three prisons are set to be closed and more are being studied.

“As the economy has worsened, prisons are the modern-day factory in our rural areas,” said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Michigan Corrections Department. “We built these prisons in the 1980s, and people were adamantly opposed to having them in their communities. Now we go and try to take them out, and they don’t want them gone.”

Meanwhile, some states that revised parole and sentencing in boom times are fighting a different battle: to hold on to the financing that made those changes possible.

In Kansas, for instance, where drug treatment has replaced incarceration for some offenders and mentally ill offenders have received housing assistance, the prison population fell in recent years, largely because recidivism also declined, said Roger Werholtz, secretary of the Kansas Corrections Department. Now many of those programs have fallen victim to budget cuts.

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