What's the Big Idea?

In The Nation's Prisons, A Silver Lining to the Economic Mess?

By John Pomfret
Saturday, March 7, 2009; 2:12 PM

Will the nationwide economic mess force states to stop locking up so many non-violent offenders? That's what The Pew Center on the States suggested in a report last week.

With state budgets facing their 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 parole, ranging from one in 13 Georgians to one in 88 adults in New Hampshire.

For several decades, states have generally pursued a simple strategy when it came to criminals, Lock 'em up and throw away the key. Judges were given little leeway to modify prison sentences; numerous states passed laws mandating a lifetime in jail for three felonies. But that has led to massive overcrowding. And to the realization that constantly building prisons is not only a bad solution but also unaffordable.

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 should states do? Pew suggested that they consider releasing non-violent offenders to parole and probation programs, which are 20 times cheaper than prison, along with what it called community-based treatment programs. The cost savings could be huge. The average yearly cost of supervising a probationer last year was $1,250. A prisoner? $29,000. Currently, alternatives to prison are massively underfunded, the Pew report said. But the bad economy could help change that.

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. Mississippi Gov. Hailey Barbour has been releasing non-violent offenders well before their sentences are up. Kansas, too.

Gelb applauds these efforts. "The bad economy provides a window of opportunity for good policy," he said.

-- John Pomfret

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