Red ink-smeared budgets are pushing an array of states — Virginia, Kentucky, California, Alabama, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina among them — to consider early release of hundreds, possibly thousands of convicted criminals. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter even wants to close down two prisons.
As Josh Goodman writes in Governing magazine, "Budget crises have a way of making the politically impossible suddenly possible." Even more significant, though, may be a wave of reassessment, from localities to state governments to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, about the effectiveness of America's vast criminal justice enterprise.
A primary reason is the sheer magnitude of our incarceration rates.
We have placed one in 100 adults 18 and over behind bars, a nationwide prisoner total of 2.3 million. Probation and parole swell the total to 7.2 million Americans under some form of criminal justice system supervision.
Why should we be incarcerating more people than do such regimes as China or Russia? The costs are eye-popping — $50 billion a year to state and local governments, and $5 billion to the federal prison system.
And what does it say about our priorities (and our future) when at least five states — Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont — spend as much or more on corrections as they do on higher education?
In Florida, where the prison system has surpassed 100,000 inmates, the call for reassessment is coming not only from Gov. Charlie Crist and the Center for Florida Fiscal & Tax Reform, but from such top business organizations as Associated Industries of Florida, Enterprise Florida, Florida TaxWatch and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
It makes more sense, the Florida reformers suggest, to shift nonviolent offenders from prison (where they cost the state at least $20,000 a year each) to community probation, work release or parole where they are required to pay their court costs and fines, make restitution to their victims, and perhaps most importantly, keep up their child support payments.
Last year Congress broke from its unthinking "law and order" attitudes of the last decades to approve — with "aye" votes by both Sens. Obama and Biden — the "Second Chance Act" authorizing major grants to states and localities to help rehabilitate former offenders.
"After 20 years of going down the 'tough-on-crime' road and seeing what it has wrought, we now know better," declared Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., one of the act's backers. President Bush signed the law but failed to fund it, a decision the Obama administration is expected to reverse.
The "burden of proof" on corrections has shifted in today's tough economic climate, says Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project.
For decades, the dominant case was that more prison cells were the best way to protect citizens against crime — indeed, anything short of prison was denigrated as "soft."
But now, beyond the cascading costs, says Gelb, "there's mounting evidence we have passed the point of diminishing returns for new prisons — indeed, the more people we lock up, the less we get for it in public safety." But if we "can't build our way to public safety," Gelb notes, there are huge gains to be had in community corrections.
He's referring to more thoughtful probation and parole systems, drug courts, transition centers and the like. "If we shift some of the funding from prisons to community corrections, we could spend less and have less crime," he insists.
But it won't work unless the community corrections are well planned and adequately funded. One reason parole and probation now so often flounder, fueling high recidivism rates, is that enforcement officers tend to hunker down in large, centrally located headquarters, failing to get into and know the communities and situations offenders live in.