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January 28, 2009

The state of cost problems in the states of prison nation

16866_SOTSCover Now available here via Stateline.org is an effective article about state struggles with prison costs appearing in the  "State of the States 2009" publication put together by the folks at The Pew Center on the States.  The piece is titled "Strapped states eye prison savings" and here are a few choice snippets:

Faced with a surging prison population and a state budget more than $1 billion in the red, Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky lawmakers last year took a dramatic step that they hoped would save $30 million over two years: granting early release to more than 1,800 inmates, including some felons convicted of murder, rape and other violent crimes.

Kentucky’s prisoner release plan, which touched off a political firestorm and prompted a court challenge from the state’s attorney general — like Beshear, a Democrat — is an example of the difficult criminal justice decisions some states could face this year.

From California to Connecticut, states are under mounting pressure to bring corrections spending in line with the reality of gaping budget shortfalls. Lawmakers in some states are slashing prisoner rehabilitation programs, releasing inmates early or packing them more tightly into crowded facilities to save money. Others are using technology, such as satellite tracking, to monitor sex offenders, drunken drivers and other criminals instead of keeping them behind bars. To avoid building new prisons, many states ship inmates to private facilities that often are thousands of miles away.

Other states are exploring long-term strategies aimed at preventing recidivism, a leading factor behind overcrowded prisons and jails — and rising costs.  At any given time, more than 2.3 million people are locked up in federal, state and local facilities in the United States, and more than half of those released from prison are back behind bars within three years, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics....

Nationally, corrections trails only health care, education and transportation in consuming state dollars. Prison spending increased 127 percent from 1987 to 2007, and at least five states — Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont — now spend as much or more on corrections as they do on higher education, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers and the Public Safety Performance Project.

The statistics are alarming state lawmakers in all regions of the country and, increasingly, on both sides of the political aisle. Criminal justice reform — for years a controversial issue for legislators wary of being labeled “soft on crime” — is finding new proponents as public officials seek ways to save money.  But a single strategy to tackle incarceration costs has yet to emerge, and some critics say state policymakers are dragging their feet and avoiding comprehensive changes that have become necessary.

Regular readers know that I have been following this story for years and the cost of sentencing toughness are coming due.  Here are links to prior posts covering these issues in particular states:

January 28, 2009 at 06:20 PM | Permalink


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The January 28, 2009 issue of the Lexington (Ky.) "Herald-Leader" newspaper contains a thoughtful Editorial (p. A-10), entitled "Imprisoned By Inmate Numbers: Legislature Holds Key to Solutions" on this issue. It can be viewed at the newspaper's web site, "Kentucky.com". Kentucky incarcerated about 3,000 inmates at a cost of $10 million in 1970. By 2008, Kentucky incarcerated 22,719 inmates at a cost of $450 million. According to the Pew Center on the States, Ky.'s 2007 inmate growth rate of 12% makes it the fastest growing prison system in the U.S.! "Try that as a tourism slogan." The Editorial refers to Kentucky's propensity as its "incarceration addiction". It then concludes: "This isn't about being soft on crime. It's about giving up the illusion that locking people away for a long, long time makes us safer. It's proven to be a very costly illusion, one we can no longer afford." This statement can be generalized to other states and the Federal criminal justice systems. "This is not an issue that can be solved by the Courts. Only the legislature holds the solution to Kentucky's (and the nation's) prison problem. ... This addiction is draining our treasury and sapping the state of human potential."

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jan 29, 2009 10:33:15 AM

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