By Nicholas Riccardi
September 5, 2009
LA Times: Reporting from Denver
After decades of pursuing lock-'em-up policies, states are scrambling to reduce their prison populations in the face of tight budgets, making fundamental changes to their criminal justice systems as they try to save money.
Some states are revising mandatory-sentencing laws that locked up nonviolent offenders; others are recalculating the way prison time is counted.
California, with the nation's second-largest prison system, is considering perhaps the most dramatic proposal -- releasing 40,000 inmates to save money and comply with a court ruling that found the state's prisons overcrowded.
The flurry of activity has led to an unusual phenomenon -- bureaucrats and politicians expressing relief at the tight times. "The budget has actually helped us," said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Corrections Department in
"When you're not having budget troubles, that's when we implemented many of these lengthy drug sentences and zero-tolerance policies that really didn't work," he said.
Though prison budgets grew steadily over the last 20 years, a recent survey found that 26 states cut their corrections budgets this year. The reductions range from the small-scale -- such as putting in energy-efficient lightbulbs -- to sweeping changes like the early releases.
"States are saying, 'We can't build our way to public safety, especially when budgets are tight,' " said Adam Gelb, head of the
Many states have expanded credit for good behavior. Others have made legal tweaks, such as raising the minimum amount of damage required for a property crime to be a felony. Some, like
These efforts, however, have already run into resistance.
"They conjure up images of possible Willie Horton ad campaigns," said Seitz, referring to the notorious ad that accused 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis of letting a rapist out of prison prematurely.
Still, Seitz has vowed to try to get his bill passed this fall. He says that a raft of mandatory-sentencing laws left state prisons dangerously overcrowded. "We are putting 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag."
Corrections has become the second-fastest-growing item in state budgets, second only to Medicaid. And, unlike Medicaid and many other programs, states pay for prisons with almost no help from
The state has gone through severe cuts already this year -- it lopped 10.5% off of its budget in June. Ritter later cut an additional $320 million and counted on saving $44 million over two years by letting 2,600 ex-cons end their probation early and having the parole board consider earlier parole for 3,500 inmates.
A nonpartisan commission recommended the moves in December, and Dreyer noted that inmates eligible for faster parole were already nearing release. "These are people who are getting out of prison anyway within six months," he said.
The parole board has started considering whom to let out, but Republicans have attacked the plan as too risky. "It's inevitable these people will commit crimes," said state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, who hopes to challenge Ritter in next year's governor's race.
They also raised the credit that inmates get for good behavior from 20% of their sentence to 30%, starting next year.
"We needed to save some money, at least in the short term," said state Rep. Jeff Barker, a former police lieutenant. "It wasn't easy." Indeed, anti-crime activists are preparing a ballot measure to reverse the changes.
The state recalculated the time that convicts who have violated their parole must serve in prison. If convicts have not committed new crimes and violated only a technical term of their parole (failing a drug test, for example), they are credited for time they spent on parole out of prison before the violation.
Jennifer Brislin, a spokeswoman for the state's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said officials decided that offenders who do not commit new crimes while on probation deserve some reward. "That should be worth as much as sitting on the state's dime, behind a fence," she said.
State Atty. Gen. Jack Conway sued to overturn the thousands of early releases, arguing that a retroactive change to sentences is illegal and risky. The case was heard before the Kentucky Supreme Court in August.
"To go back retroactively as a budget-saving measure and . . . release violent offenders is, to me, irresponsible,"
"If we're going to deal with the issue," he said, "we have to be smart about it."