While liberals have long complained that harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses like drug possession are unjust, the push to overhaul penal policies has been increasingly embraced by elected officials in some of the most conservative states in the country. And for a different reason: to save money.
Some early results have been dramatic. In 2007, Texas was facing a projected shortfall of about 17,000 inmate beds by 2012. But instead of building and operating new prison space, the State Legislature decided to steer nonviolent offenders into drug treatment and to expand re-entry programs designed to help recently released inmates avoid returning to custody.
As a result, the Texas prison system is now operating so far under its capacity that this month it is closing a 1,100-bed facility in Sugar Land — the first time in the state’s history that a prison has closed. Texas taxpayers have saved hundreds of millions of dollars, and the changes have coincided with the violent crime rate’s dipping to its lowest level in 30 years.
“In Texas for the last few years we’ve been driving down both the crime rate and the incarceration rate,” said Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which helped draft the state’s corrections overhaul. “And it’s not just Texas. South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Ohio in the past year or so have done major reforms. These are certainly not liberal states. That is significant.”
More than a dozen states in recent years have taken steps to reduce the costs to taxpayers of keeping so many criminals locked up. As crime rates have steadily declined to 40-year lows, draining the political potency from crime fears, the fiscal crunch has started to prompt a broad rethinking about alternatives to incarceration.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a wave of stiff new sentencing laws, from mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession to California’s three-strikes law imposing an automatic life sentence for a third felony conviction. Partly as a result, the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, now accounts for 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Taxpayers are spending about $50 billion a year on state corrections systems — nearly twice as much, in inflation-adjusted terms, as expenditures in 1987, according to the Pew Center on the States.
Even before the financial crisis settled in, a handful of states, including New York, had begun experimenting with softening mandatory sentences for drug crimes, driven by a mix of concerns about effectiveness, fairness and cost. Texas, an early innovator, mandated probation for low-level possession of many drugs in 2003, before enacting its far more sweeping overhaul of incarceration policies in 2007.