Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates Early

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By Keith B. Richburg and Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 5, 2008

NEW YORK -- Reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug offenders, many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as dangerously naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up.

It is a theory that has long been pushed by criminal justice advocates and liberal politicians -- that some felons, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses, would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior. But the states' conversion to that view has less to do with a change of heart on crime than with stark fiscal realities. At a time of shrinking resources, prisons are eating up an increasing share of many state budgets.

"It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now."

Mauer and other observers point to a number of recent actions, some from states facing huge budget shortfalls, some not, but still worried about exploding costs.

· To ease the overcrowding and save California about $1.1 billion over two years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed freeing about 22,000 prisoners convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses 20 months earlier than their scheduled release dates. He also wants to place them on unsupervised parole, saving the state the cost of having all parolees assigned to an agent.

· Lawmakers in Providence, R.I., approved an expansion last week of the state's "good time" early-release rules to cover more inmates serving shorter sentences. The new rules, which will put more inmates under post-prison supervision, are expected to save Rhode Island an estimated $8 billion over five years.

· In Kentucky, where 22,000 state inmates are housed in county prisons and private facilities, lawmakers agreed to allow certain nonviolent, nonsexual offenders to serve up to 180 days of their sentences at home, and to make it easier for prisoners to earn credit for good behavior. The move could save the state, which is facing a $900 million deficit over the next two years, as much as $30 million.

· In Mississippi, where the prison population has doubled during the past dozen years to 22,600, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has signed into law two measures that will reduce it: One to let certain nonviolent offenders go free after serving 25 percent of their sentences, and the other to release some terminally ill inmates.


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