By Marc Mauer
With a prison population surge of 40 percent since 2000, the Commonwealth of Kentucky now spends more than $400 million annually on its prison system.
That was a key factor in Gov. Steve Beshear's signing into law a policy to divert low-level drug offenders into treatment rather than incarceration.
Indeed, governors across the nation are finding that prison expansion in the midst of an economic crisis is not sustainable, since it cuts into funding for higher education and other vital services.
The fiscal crisis, though, offers an opportunity to get beyond the "tough on crime" rhetoric that has shaped criminal-justice policy and to promote bipartisan initiatives that are both fiscally responsible and enhance public safety. If prison growth is to be brought under control, three areas of policy are critical for success: sentencing reform, prisoner re-entry and reducing parole revocations.
Much of the get-tough approach to sentencing of recent decades has been driven by the war on drugs, which has produced a remarkable rise in the number of drug offenders in prisons and jails — from 40,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today.
As a result, some states are now reconsidering the mandatory sentencing policies that have contributed to these skyrocketing figures, despite having little impact on substance abuse. In New York state the legislature this year scaled back the Rockefeller drug laws, under which a first-time offender convicted of possessing four ounces of narcotics was subject to a 15-year prison term. Judges will now have greater latitude to distinguish true drug kingpins from the lower-level players in the drug trade, many of whom would be better served in treatment programs.
The problem of prisoner re-entry is a key contributor to high prison costs as well, with two-thirds of the 700,000 people released from prison each year expected to be rearrested within three years of release.
In response to this, Congress last year enacted the Second Chance Act, a measure to provide funding to establish programs to provide housing, jobs and mentoring for people returning home from prison.
Significantly, the legislation gained support across the political spectrum, ranging from liberal members of Congress such as Rep. John Conyers of Michigan to conservatives like Sen, Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Many states have enhanced their re-entry initiatives in recent years, as well.
In Michigan, the Department of Corrections has developed a comprehensive program that involves assessing the needs of offenders while in prison, developing an offender-specific re-entry plan and coordinating supervision and services in the community upon release. The statewide program has been able to reduce the rate of offenders returning to prison by 24 percent.
The third area of policy change relates to the increasing number of people being sent back to prison for a parole violation. In Kansas, for example, 60 percent of admissions to prison had consisted of parolees who had been using drugs or alcohol or who failed to report to their parole officer.
In an effort to reduce these high rates, the Department of Corrections developed a two-pronged approach in 2004. First, the state invested resources to link parolees with job, treatment and mental-health services to enhance their prospects for success.
Second, corrections leaders provided training and oversight of parole officers to increase their use of community-based supervision and services. In just the first two years of the initiative, the number of parole violators returned to prison was cut in half.
Some would argue that reducing prison populations might harm public safety, but in fact such measures will help reduce crime.