What's the Big Idea?

What's the Big Idea -- Prisoner Release

By John Pomfret
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Should states start releasing prisoners in order to balance their failing budgets? That's what The Pew Center on the States suggested in a report last week.

With state budgets facing the biggest shortfalls in decades, corrections, which eats up more than $50 billion a year nationwide, is a prime target for cuts. Last year it was the fastest expanding chunk of state budgets, and over the past two decades, its growth as a share of state spending has been second only to Medicaid. One in 31 adults (7.3 million Americans) is now caught up in the criminal justice system, either in jail, or on probation or paroleranging from one in 13 Georgians to one in 88 adults in New Hampshire.

Last month, a federal court ordered California, which had a budget deficit of $40 billion, to release up to 55,000 prisoners over three years to provide the remaining 100,000 plus inmates with better health care.

So, what do the states do with those released? Pew suggests bolstering parole and probation programs, which are 20 times cheaper than prison, along with what it calls community-based treatment programs. The cost savings are huge. The average yearly cost of supervising a probationer last year was $1,250. A prisoner? $29,000.

Time was when politicians viewed to "demonstrate that I'm tough on crime," said Adam Gelb, who directed the report for Pew. Now they're focusing on how to "get better results at lower costs to taxpayers." Some of the reddest states are leading the charge. Instead of building eight more prisons at $904 million, Texas decided in 2007 to commit $241 million to expand probation and parole departments as well as residential options for non-violent offenders. Mississipi Gov. Hailey Barbor has been releasing non-violent offenders well before their sentences are up. Kansas, too.

Gelb applauds these efforts. "Too many Americans are in prison," he said. "The bad economy provides a window of opportunity for good policy."

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