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.
But two years ago, Texas officials were faced with an alarming projection: By 2012, the state would need 17,000 more beds, which would mean building eight prisons at a cost of nearly $1 billion.
State Rep. Jerry Madden, a self-described conservative Republican, had just taken over as chairman of the Texas House committee on corrections. "I started asking questions," he said in a phone interview. To avoid building more beds for more prisoners, Madden said, "You either got to slow 'em going in, or speed 'em going out. And Texas is not a state that says, 'Speed 'em up going out.' "
Madden said he pulled together experts from conservative and liberal think tanks. "When it came to prison ideas that work, they all agreed," he said.
The changes, implemented in the 2007 legislative session, included more funding for drug and DWI courts. New rules shortened the average probation time from 10 years to five. With about 445,000 people on probation, the system had become "the Number One feeder to the prison system," said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a progressive group.
The state also ordered the parole board to raise its parole rate to an earlier number of 31 percent; the proportion of eligible inmates granted parole had slipped to 26 percent.
With those changes in place, prison population growth slowed to a trickle. From January 2007 until December 2008, Texas added 529 inmates to its total, a tenth of what was projected.
C. West Huddleston, chief executive of the Alexandria-based National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said Texas may have been in a better position than other states to make such dramatic changes because its prison growth was so much worse.
"Texas is a remarkable example of how to take control of an explosive prison population," he said. "If Texas can do it, any state can do it."
For Texas residents arrested for drug- or alcohol-related crimes, the new courts have offered them a chance to treat addiction and turn their lives around.
When Bill Bennatt, 62, was pulled over by a highway patrolman in March 2008, after drinking at Antone's in Austin, he was arrested and spent the night in jail. He said he knew he was in trouble -- it was his second drunken-driving arrest in less than a year.
The next day, his lawyer told him about a new program that would keep Bennatt out of prison. DWI court would allow him to keep his license and to drive in exchange for submitting to counseling, a weekly meeting with a judge, two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week and daily phone checks to see if he would be called in for a random test.
Bennatt was skeptical at first.
"You took an old fart like me and changed my way of thinking," said Bennatt, who said he now has no desire to drink. "It is a great option for people who are repeat offenders for DWI." He added, "It's so much better than putting people in jail."
Drug courts have a long history, the first one having been launched in Miami at the end of the 1980s. There are now 2,301 drug courts, operating in all 50 states and the District and serving about 120,000 drug offenders, the national association says. The 2009 fiscal-year federal budget provides $64 million to support drug courts, and Obama has asked to increase it to $118 million. Huddleston estimates that it costs $9,000 to treat a client.
A powerful motivator for alternative sentencing is recidivism. For nearly 20 years, national recidivism rates have remained the same, with half of all freed inmates returning to prison within three years. But evidence shows that those who get treatment for drug and alcohol problems have a far lower rate of returning to prison. For example, about 70 percent of people enrolled in drug courts complete the program, and 75 percent of them have not been arrested again, Huddleston said.
DWI courts are relatively recent and were modeled on the experience of the drug courts. One difference is that offenders in DWI courts have already been convicted of drunken driving; drug courts allow an offender to avoid a conviction by entering the program.
There are skeptics. Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said DWI courts "have a positive but limited role." He said that the courts are good for dealing with specific cases of problem drinkers but that they do nothing to stop drunken driving in the first place.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates change in marijuana laws, was similarly skeptical, saying he is concerned about the "institutionalization" of drug courts that are a form of "forced abstinence" for drug users.
Even proponents say the courts tackle only a fraction of the problem. These inmates often find a lack of resources. Judges in drug and DWI courts usually have full-time dockets with volunteers to preside over the specialized courts, typically one night a week.
David Hodges, 59, spent 20 years as a judge in Waco, Tex., before retiring, and he now volunteers to preside over a DWI court. "We're making a dent," he said. "But it's a small dent."