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Cash-strapped states revise laws to get inmates out

Mandatory sentencing laws are relaxed, parole is accelerated, and time off for good behavior is increased as states scramble to save money.

September 05, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

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.

Colorado will accelerate parole for nearly one-sixth of its prison population. Kentucky has already granted early release to more than 3,000 inmates. Oregon has temporarily nullified a voter initiative calling for stiffer sentences for some crimes, and has increased by 10% the time inmates get off their sentences for good behavior.

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 Michigan, which increased its parole board by 50% this year to speed up releases.

"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 Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project. "For the most part, state leaders are not holding their noses and making these changes just to balance their budgets. They're beginning to realize that research-based strategies can lead to less crime at far less cost than prison."

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 New York, have overhauled long-criticized mandatory sentencing laws that sent nonviolent, first-time drug offenders to state prison.

These efforts, however, have already run into resistance.

In Ohio, a bill to quintuple the time inmates can earn for good behavior stalled in the state Senate over objections from prosecutors and some Republicans. The bill's sponsor, GOP state Sen. Bill Seitz, said that even Democrats in the state House were wary of helping out.

"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 Washington.

In Colorado, 9% of the state budget goes to corrections. More taxpayer dollars go to house its 23,000 prisoners than to educate the 220,000 students at Colorado's public universities, noted Evan Dreyer, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr.

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.

In Oregon, legislators closed a $78-million shortfall in the public safety budget this summer by delaying the implementation of a measure that increases sentences for certain drug and property crimes.

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.

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