Prison reform advocates press states to shift money out of corrections system

Advocates of overhauling the U.S. criminal justice system see a bright spot in the dire financial straits that states are facing: Politicians eager to trim budgets are willing to cut spending on prisons and corrections programs.

Several liberal and conservative groups have joined together to take advantage of the moment. A coalition that includes the evangelical Prison Fellowship Ministries, the NAACP, the American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union is working to push changes that they hope will lower the U.S. prison population.

“We find ourselves with a new crop of allies,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. “This is a place where we’ve found commonality.”

His organization is to release a report Thursday, endorsed by conservative activists Grover Norquist and Pat Nolan, calling on states to cut spending on corrections and to direct that money to education. The study, which bemoans the increasing amount of money spent on incarceration, notes that state spending on prisons has grown at six times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years.

Some states have begun to respond to the financial pressure. This week, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law a bill that shifts responsibility for jailing thousands of California inmates to local governments to help cut the state’s nearly
$27 billion deficit and alleviate overcrowding in state prisons.

Although local governments are worried about the cost, supporters of criminal justice reform lauded the move, saying it will keep lower-level offenders closer to their families and provide greater access to rehabilitation programs.

The money saved by such changes could be substantial. More than $50 billion is spent annually on state corrections programs, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project.

“Everyone is looking for ways to cut,” said Alison Lawrence, who studies corrections policies for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Legislators are reviewing reports similar to the NAACP’s that say crime rates can be reduced while spending less on prisons, Lawrence said. Some states are experimenting with programs that allow parole violators into treatment programs instead of prisons. Others have amended drug sentencing laws to allow more drug offenders to go straight to rehabilitation programs.

“You’re not sending someone to prison, so you are not adding to the budget,” she said. “It saves on court costs and parole hearing costs.”

In 2005, Texas began implementing sentencing changes and poured money into drug treatment and probation programs. The overhaul slowed the state’s incarceration rate, led to a 12.8 percent drop in violent crime since 2003 and saved the estimated $2 billion that would have gone to building new prisons to house inmates, according to a 2010 state report and advocates. Lawmakers in Florida and Georgia are considering similar changes.

“Prisons are necessary but way overused,” said Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship Ministries. “As conservatives, we are suspicious of government and [also] suspicious of the cost of government. But we have turned sort of a blind eye on the spending on prison. It has skyrocketed without a parallel increase in public safety.”

Nolan and other advocates of overhauling the criminal justice system point to studies by the Pew Center on the States, which have found that one in 100 adults was in prison or jail last year and that one in 31 Americans is under some form of corrections control — jail, prison, parole or probation.

Jealous has also made the issue a top priority for the NAACP. His group brought together the coalition of conservatives and liberals and will begin posting billboards in major cities with slogans such as: “Welcome to America, home to 5 percent of the world’s people & 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” He will also meet with state officials to ask for cuts to corrections spending and corresponding increases in spending to public higher education.

That could prove difficult. Even states that have begun to lower their prison populations have difficulty achieving substantial savings, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates for lower imprisonment rates.

“The only way you can really reduce spending is close prisons,” Mauer said. “There’s a lot of resistance [to that] in some states.”

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said the resistance also stems from concerns that violent criminals could released if the cuts go too deep.

“It is very hard to earn your way into prison in the United States,” he said. “These aren’t people who just had a baggie of marijuana or shoplifted.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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