New prison sentencing and re-entry policies are already taking hold in several states, thanks in part to work by the Council of State Governments’ prison policy arm, the Justice Center, with the support of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Center on the States.
Their results have been especially impressive in Texas and Kansas, law-and-order states that were facing huge increases in their prison populations before they turned to the Justice Center for analyses and policy suggestions. Last month, representatives from both states testified about their experience before a House appropriations subcommittee.
State officials said that after studying the problem they found their prison populations were being driven up, not by crime, but mainly by breakdowns in their parole and probation systems.
Simply put, they were sending too many people back to jail. Many were drug-addicted or mentally ill offenders who could be safely dealt with in community programs.
Legislatures in both states decided to expand community-based drug treatment and mental health services, and encouraged localities to provide closer supervision for released inmates. The changes, put in place two years ago, have yielded especially strong results in Texas. State officials said that the new system had already reduced parole revocations by an astonishing 25 percent and helped the state avoid a projected increase in the prison population that would have cost the Texas treasury hundreds of millions of dollars.
Of course, Texas still can't afford to pay for the prison system we've got, but without the initiative described in the op ed, the problem would by now have reached crisis levels. See this analysis from the Justice Reinvestment Project on the impact of Texas' 2007 reforms (pdf).
Relatedly, in Ohio they're debating whether to reduce the prison population abruptly by more than 10% because they can't afford to pay for incarceration. Doc Berman points to news from the Buckeye state that:
Mass incarceration is a rich country's game, with the United States accounting for 5% of the planet's population but 25% of its prisoners. Forcing states to rethink draconian incarceration policies could turn out to be a silver lining amongst the economic storm clouds. I predict that over the next few years, with the economy feeling the pinch, more states will be forced to get serious about reducing prison populations, which were already too large and expensive before the economy dipped.
With a near-record 50,919 inmates behind bars as of May 4, Gov. Ted Strickland said he has no choice but to start releasing people because the state can't afford it. His proposal isn't just a scare tactic.
Ohio lawmakers are considering sweeping prison reform in which prisoners will be sent to live in halfway houses in communities -- or be paroled to a house down the block. Many more will never set foot in a prison under a proposal to amend sentencing laws so some crimes are no longer considered serious enough to warrant prison.Strickland predicts his proposed changes could reduce the prison population by 6,736 indefinitely and save state taxpayers almost $28 million per year.