Strapped States Rethink Prison Policy

by Chris Sturr | January 13, 2009

From the Associated Press; hat-tip to Steven L. Robinson at lbo-talk. I have to say, we’ve heard this before; we had a two-part article in our July/August and Nov/Dec 2003 issues called “Fiscal Lockdown” (sorry–it is not available online) that assessed the claims back then that states’ fiscal crises would halt or reverse the prison boom. The author, Julie Falk, didn’t think it would happen, and it didn’t. Maybe the crisis is bad enough this time, though?

By DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer | Sat Jan 10, 12:33 pm ET

NEW YORK—Their budgets in crisis, governors, legislators and prison officials across the nation are making or considering policy changes that will likely remove tens of thousands of offenders from prisons and parole supervision.

Collectively, the pending and proposed initiatives could add up to one of biggest shifts ever in corrections policy, putting into place cost-saving reforms that have struggled to win political support in the tough-on-crime climate of recent decades.

“Prior to this fiscal crisis, legislators could tinker around the edges—but we’re now well past the tinkering stage,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.

“Many political leaders who weren’t comfortable enough, politically, to do it before can now—under the guise of fiscal responsibility—implement programs and policies that would be win/win situations, saving money and improving corrections,” Mauer said

In California, faced with a projected $42 billion deficit and prison overcrowding that has triggered a federal lawsuit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to eliminate parole for all offenders not convicted of violent or sex-related crimes, reducing the parole population by about 70,000. He also wants to divert more petty criminals to county jails and grant early release to more inmates—steps that could trim the prison population by 15,000 over the next 18 months.

In Kentucky, where the inmate population had been soaring, even some murderers and other violent offenders are benefiting from a temporary cost-saving program that has granted early release to nearly 2,000 inmates.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is proposing early release of about 1,000 inmates. New York Gov. David Paterson wants early release for 1,600 inmates as well as an overhaul of the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws that impose lengthy mandatory sentences on many nonviolent drug offenders.

Read the rest of the article.

2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. This is definitely good, but to me it still doesn’t get to the root of prison justice issues. Especially with the financial crisis, there’s going to be crippling poverty/racism/and so on that – once this crisis is over, or even while it’s still going on – is going to send folks right back to those prisons. So I guess my question is – is this just a temporary fix for state budgets, or is it going to be something that is sustained once the financial crisis is over?

  2. I couldn’t agree more; that is exactly what we saw in the last recession (as we predicted in our “Fiscal Lockdown” two-part article). What most observers of the prison crisis–including its critics–fail to appreciate is that high rates of incarceration fulfill macroeconomic functions, e.g. regulation of the labor supply when neither low-wage work nor welfare support are available. It is the prisonification of the welfare system, or the shift < HREF="http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2006/0106sturr.html" REL="nofollow">from a social welfare state to a penal welfare state<>. That shift has already been made, so your skepticism, BrianVS, about whether a financial crisis would be enough to reverse it is entirely warranted. —CS

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