NEW YORK -- Reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug offenders, many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as dangerously naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up.
It is a theory that has long been pushed by criminal justice advocates and liberal politicians -- that some felons, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses, would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior. But the states' conversion to that view has less to do with a change of heart on crime than with stark fiscal realities. At a time of shrinking resources, prisons are eating up an increasing share of many state budgets.
"It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now."
Mauer and other observers point to a number of recent actions, some from states facing huge budget shortfalls, some not, but still worried about exploding costs.
Proposals to free prisoners are still met with opposition, particularly from law enforcement officials who fear that a flood of released felons could return to their communities, and from victims groups that worry that justice is being sacrificed for budgetary concerns.
The California plan has drawn criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the state's nonpartisan fiscal adviser, which warned that 63,000 mid-level offenders would "effectively go unpunished, serving little or no prison time" and would not have active supervision.
The proposal also worries local governments and police in California, particularly in Los Angeles County -- home to the nation's largest prison system, which supplies about a third of the state's prison population. "It's kind of like the volcano has erupted," County Sheriff Lee Baca said. "To let out 63,000 prisoners on summary parole -- which means no parole -- is not good policy."
Bob Pack, 52, of Danville, Calif., is particularly disturbed by the prospect of softer punishment forthose convicted of drunken driving. In 2003, Pack's two children -- Troy, 10, and Alana, 7 -- were struck and killed when a drunk driver's car jumped a curb and ran onto a neighborhood sidewalk. The driver had three prior drunken-driving convictions.
Said Pack: "I guarantee you that if this program is fulfilled, somewhere down the road -- it could be three months or a year -- there's going to be a family in court over the death of a loved one, because of someone who got out early."
But for now, state officials are finding themselves under mounting pressure to cut costs and are looking at their rising prison population.
Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States. During the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent.
In the Northeastern states, according to the Pew report, prison spending over the past 20 years has risen 61 percent, while higher education spending has declined by 5.5 percent.
California -- which has the country's worst fiscal crisis, with a potential shortfall of $20 billion -- has seen its prison-related spending swell to $10.4 billion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. About 170,000 inmates are packed into California's 33 prisons, which were designed to hold 100,000. About 15,000 prisoners are being housed in emergency beds, in converted classrooms and gymnasiums.
Rhode Island's prison population peaked and its 4,000-inmate prison capacity was exceeded in recent years, prompting a lawsuit and a court settlement. "The soaring inmate census has created a crisis here," said Ashbel T. Wall, the state's corrections director. "We've been busting the budget continuously. . . . Our prisons have been packed."
New Jersey is one state making changes out of a desire for more efficiency. Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) is proposing legislation to expand drug courts to channel more nonviolent, first-time drug offenders into treatment instead of prisons, and also to expand supervised parole. Another proposal would change the parole policy so parolees were not automatically returned to prison for minor drug offenses, said Lilo Stainton, the governor's spokeswoman.
She said that in New Jersey's case, the changes are not budget-driven. "We think this is a more humane and sensible way to treat people," she said.
Michigan is grappling with a massive prison population, mainly because "truth in sentencing" rules make the state less generous about granting paroles. Michigan's incarceration rate is 47 percent higher than that of the other Great Lakes states, according to experts.
Michigan has become one of the few states that actually spend more on prisons than on higher education -- about $2 billion for prisons, and $1.9 billion in state aid to its 15 public universities and 28 community colleges. "It's insane," said Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending in Lansing. "The governor is always talking about how we need to be high tech. But these days, the best career opportunity is to get a job as a prison guard."
In fact, according to Thomas Clay, a prisons and budget expert with Michigan's nonprofit Citizens Research Council, the state government employed 70,000 people in 1980, including 5,000 working for the prisons system. Today, the number of state workers has dropped to 54,000, but 17,000 work for the prisons.
"You've got two decades of failed policies," said Laura Sager a consultant in Michigan for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said mandatory sentencing laws and tough penalties for drug offenses in the 1980s "bloated prisons and prison populations, and the taxpayer is paying a very high price."
Now with states struggling with budget deficits, she said, "you have pressures that make it palatable to take a second look."
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