SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Desperate to save money, many states are pushing to reduce the number of people in prison while also cutting the services meant to keep them from committing new crimes, including probation monitoring, mental health care and drug counseling.
Those clashing policies — more offenders out, less supervision at home — raise the possibility that states could save now but pay more in the long run, both in money and crime.
“Four years from now, I think you’ll probably see a spike in incarceration rates,” said Justin Jones, director of the Department of Corrections in Oklahoma, one of the states planning to reduce its prison population.
Oklahoma intends to lighten its inmate burden through greater use of parole, community sentencing and electronic monitoring. At the same time, the state has slashed treatment and job training for prisoners and is looking at cuts to statewide mental health programs, the same ones that deal with prisoners after their release.
Texas has spent years trying to get low-level offenders out of prison and keep them out, managing to hold the prison population flat when it was projected to rise by 17,000. Now, amid a $27 billion budget crisis, the state may cut in-prison drug treatment nearly in half and eliminate money to monitor people on probation for misdemeanors.
California, still struggling to close a massive deficit, may cut its prison population by 38,000 over the next three years, or about 23 percent. Also being cut: drug counseling, mental health care and welfare-to-work programs that handle offenders.
The measures reflect the impact of the long recession, during which states have made round after round of cuts to address falling tax revenues. The economies still available now may not always be logical, just unavoidable. Money for criminal justice balances against jobs of teachers and services for those with disabilities.
“Will there be some heartburn along the way? I’m sure there will be,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Earl Sears, a Republican. “But all state agencies are having to deal with these cuts.”
Criminal justice experts agonize about the timing. After two decades of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” thinking, states were starting to adopt new policies. The most dangerous criminals would be kept behind bars while others would be handled in ways designed to keep them from returning to prison.
“We’re finally to the point that we know what works and we know what doesn’t work, and we hit it just about the same time a recession hit,” said Jones, the Oklahoma corrections director. The change is now in jeopardy.
Kansas is one example of a state making cuts in conflict with each other.
Kansas made a major shift in 2007 toward reducing the prison population and handling more ex-offenders in the community. The strategy seemed to pay off. The number of people successfully finishing probation or parole rose, from 46 percent in 2006 to 61 percent in 2008. The prison population, expected to rise 20 percent over the next eight years, dropped by 6 percent.
Now, as budget cuts begin, successful paroles are dropping and the number of prisoners has started climbing again.
Kansas plans to cut employees who oversee parole and re-entry programs and may close some prison camps. It is also spending less to help communities monitor high-risk offenders. And nine of the state’s 27 community mental health centers, where many offenders are treated, may have to close.
That worries Marilyn Cook, head of the Comcare mental health service in Wichita, the state’s largest city. Most of the offenders imprisoned from Wichita wind up back in Wichita. If they aren’t pushed to change, she said, they wind up falling into old ways.
To keep that from happening, authorities set up special courts to handle people with addictions and mental illness. More than 900 people went through Comcare’s programs for sobriety, mental health and other services in 2010. The number of inmates in the county jail with mental health problems dropped to 47 percent, down from 62 percent in 2005.
But she said state budget cuts endanger all of that. Comcare got over $6 million from the state to serve the poor and uninsured in 2005, Cook said. That has now dwindled to about $2 million. If the proposed budget cuts go through, it would drop to $800,000 and programs would be slashed.
“Eventually these individuals are going to be served somewhere. They’re going to go to long-term care in state hospitals, in jails and in prison,” Cook said.
John Spence says the community treatment he got for mental illness has helped him stay out of jail.
Spence, 48, threatened a police officer in Kansas during a psychotic episode. He had served an 18-month prison sentence in Texas for a similar offense. This time, however, Spence got help with his prescriptions and finding a place to live. He’s been on his own for a year now.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Monday, April 04, 2011