States Seek Less Costly Substitutes for Prison

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

NEW YORK Cash-strapped states are increasingly turning to alternative sentencing methods and to streamlined probation and parole as a way to keep low-level offenders out of prison and in their communities.

The alternative sentencing methods have been in limited use for years, often with little funding and less publicity. But recently they have gained in popularity across the country and have attracted interest from lawmakers. The measures include drug courts, which allow low-level drug offenders to avoid prison time through treatment and intense, personal, weekly intervention by a judge, and at least 500 courts for people arrested for driving while intoxicated. Drivers avoid jail by attending regular alcohol-treatment classes and by submitting to random tests.

States have also begun to shorten probation and to reduce the number of people sent to prison for technical violations, such as missing appointments. Some states are also more readily granting parole to prisoners as they become eligible, reversing a trend that kept even parole-eligible inmates locked up longer.

These trends are showing up almost everywhere as a direct response to governors and state legislatures looking with alarm at prison costs eating up increasing shares of their budgets. According to Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States, more than half the states and the District are trying to reduce the growth in their prison populations through alternative sentencing and through new probation and parole procedures.

"The economy is bringing a lot of states to the table," Gelb said, "and the research has pointed to a path for them to more public safety at less cost."

The cost savings are obvious; according to Pew, it costs an average of $79 a day to keep an inmate in prison but about $3.50 a day to monitor the same person on probation or parole.

"I don't think a lot of what's happening is being done for altruistic reasons," said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, based in Lexington, Ky. "I think it's an economics-driven shift."

The shift in thinking has included New York rolling back its Rockefeller-era drug laws and the U.S. Sentencing Commission holding public hearings on issues such as alternative sentences and incarceration. President Obama has asked Congress for more than $200 million for prisoner-reentry programs.

Maryland has one of the country's most advanced community-based corrections programs and has made significant investments in drug treatment programs, Gelb said.

Virginia is studying alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders, but there has been less progress. Virginia is one of a handful of states that abolished parole to keep offenders in prison longer.

But what is striking, experts say, is how some states with reputations for being tough on crime are most rapidly embracing these policies, which might have once been dismissed as the product of liberal think tanks and soft-on-crime leniency.

Texas is a case in point. From 1978 to 2004, the inmate population rose 573 percent and the state's population increased 67 percent. With hard sentencing laws and some conservative judges, Texas built a "lock 'em up" reputation. The state has more than 155,00 inmates and leads the nation in putting prisoners to death.

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