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April 2, 2011

"State budget crises push sentencing reforms"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new AP story that provides an effective overview of how, as a result of bills for mass incarceration coming due, sentencing reforms are part of many states' efforts to deal with budget issues.  Here are a few excerpts:

As costs to house state inmates have soared in recent years, many conservatives are reconsidering a tough-on-crime era that has led to stiffer sentences, overcrowded prisons and bloated corrections budgets.   Ongoing budget deficits and steep drops in tax revenue in most states are forcing the issue, with law-and-order Republican governors and state legislators beginning to overhaul years of policies that were designed to lock up more criminals and put them away for longer periods of time....

Republican governors and lawmakers pushed for many of the policies that put low-level drug offenders and nonviolent felons behind bars and extended sentences for many convicted criminals.  But with the GOP in control of more financially strapped state governments, a growing number of Republican elected officials favor a review of the sentencing laws that contributed to a fourfold increase in prison costs over two decades.

The total cost of incarcerating state inmates swelled from $12 billion in 1988 to more than $50 billion by 2008....  Fall election gains put Republicans in control of 25 state legislatures and 29 governor's offices, and many have pledged not to raise taxes even as they face budget shortfalls. Reforming laws to send fewer low-level offenders to state prison or reduce their sentences is a more politically palatable way to save money than cutting spending for schools or health care programs....

The proposals vary by state, but the hallmarks include ways to reduce sentences for lower-level offenders, direct some offenders to alternative sentencing programs, give judges more sentencing discretion and smooth the transition for released prisoners.  In many states, the Republican measures parallel Democratic efforts that stalled long ago. The push to reform sentencing laws has forged uneasy alliances between law-and-order politicians and activists who have long argued that many laws went too far....

Backers of the state measures almost always refer to Texas, which began implementing sentencing changes six years ago.  Faced with the prospect of housing 17,000 more inmates by 2012, the state poured money into drug treatment, while putting more drug abusers and petty thieves on probation. The overhaul slowed the growth of the state's incarceration rate and led to a 12.8 percent drop in the state's serious crime rate since 2003, according to a January 2010 state report. The state also saved more than $2 billion it would have spent on building new prisons to house the inmates, advocates say....

While most states are examining sentencing reforms that would target only future convicts, Oklahoma and Texas are examining changes that would release some inmates early to save money.  In Oklahoma, some offenders could be eligible for electronic-monitoring.  Texas, facing a $15 billion budget deficit, is considering whether to transition some elderly prisoners to nursing homes, house arrest or hospices.

Many prosecutors are skeptical of changes to criminal-sentencing guidelines, saying tough policies have led to reduced crime.  Jim Reams, a prosecutor in New Hampshire's Rockingham County, said an early release program in that state has been a disaster because probation and parole officers are overwhelmed by the number of newly released prisoners flooding the system.  "The budget crises are being converted into a public safety crisis," said Reams, who is president of the National District Attorneys Association.  He worries that releasing more prisoners might have negative consequences.

The AP also has this companion piece headlined "Sentencing changes in some states at a glance."

Regular readers likely know of these stories and others involving state-level reform effort, and should also recognize that these latest sentencing reform discussions are largely the culmination of political, economic and social forces that have been developing for years.  What makes all of this so fresh and interesting is the ways in which the political tides of 2010, with so many budget-oriented Republicans taking over state offices with budgets so tight, has sped up the processes of reform.

Some recent related posts with reports from a few states and the modern politics of reform:

April 2, 2011 at 02:37 PM | Permalink


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I can't wait for the howling that will ensue when the same state budget realities hit public defender appropriations, re-entry programs, drug rehab, vocational training, family counseling and all the rest.

Those taking delight in the finances-driven reduction in prison sentences are about to find out that the shoe fits on many other feet.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 2, 2011 4:04:03 PM

While it's great that many states are reforming, when with the Feds realize that picking up the slack for the states, and continuing to fedralize more and more crimes, and lock up more and more people isn't the right choice. While we keep hearing that the BOP is working to increase good time and similar measures, we can look historically and see how little things like the Second Chance Act and Elderly Offender Act actually did for the federal prison population. Why isn't there a single brave and principled member of the legislature that can actually get something to happen with one of the reform bills passed each year? Why isn't there even discussion about bringing back federal parole so that at least consideration can be given to inmates who are truly working to better themselves and might deserve an earlier release?

Posted by: fixnrlaws | Apr 3, 2011 2:51:48 PM

Unfortunately the Feds never seem to run out of money for locking people up, regardless of where/who they are getting the money...

Posted by: fixnrlaws | Apr 3, 2011 2:55:24 PM

fixnrlaws --

"Unfortunately the Feds never seem to run out of money for locking people up, regardless of where/who they are getting the money..."

We are getting the money by borrowing against future generations. We have now done this to the tune of 14 TRILLION dollars.

We are in over our heads and it has to stop. Prison expenditures by the feds are microscopic compared to entitlement expenditures, and there will never be savings anywhere close to the kind needed until we first tackle the latter. The idea that we go after prisons is just another diversion from what really needs attention.

In terms of the federal budget, it's past time to act like adults and address the cancer before the cold sore.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 3, 2011 3:42:46 PM

Thanks for your share,thanks a lot.Good luck!

Posted by: Big pony | Apr 11, 2011 6:00:55 AM

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