Monday, May 11, 2009

Tanking economy prompts rethinking incarceration

As states struggle with paying for expanding prison populations in a tanking economy, Texas' 2007 diversion reforms were cited as a model in a New York Times editorial today titled "Shrinking the Prison Population":

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:

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.
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.


sunray's wench said...

It have to be a "scare tactic" at all. States just need to look sensibly (for more than 45 seconds at a time) at the inmates who are eligible for parole, and weigh up whether they have a good enough support system on the outside to give them a fighting chance of staying out. Then the agencies need to work together, so that Parole Officers are not issuing violations as quickly as the state is releasing inmates, unless they are absolutely warrented.

Make better use of electronic tagging - get the offenders into jobs so that they (*gasp*) pay taxes instead of being a drain on everyone else!

It's really not that radical.

sunray's wench said...

Sorry, that should have been

"It doesn't have to be a.."

Anonymous said...

With Texas being the DNA exoneration capital of the United States, we could probably, realistically, close at least half of the 112 prisons we have. There's an idea.

x4livin said...

"With Texas being the DNA exoneration capital of the United States, we could probably, realistically, close at least half of the 112 prisons we have. There's an idea." Yeppers..and we need a police for the appointed defense attorneys...frankly..they don't(generally) care to do their job or in many cases..even show up(alot of little "family emergencies" leaving them still able to "handle" the matter on the phone with the DA) There HAS to be a solution to this!

FairPlay said...

Sunray Wench,

I was a parole officer here in Texas for a few years. Most of the individuals on parole are given many chances before a warrant is issued for their arrest. However, if a parolee does not report in a given month a warrant is issued for their arrest, but usually dismissed if the parolee reports the next month.

Parolees are usually allowed to test positive for cocaine etc. a few times before a warrant is issued for their arrest. I know their are alot of people in jail for drug offenses. But do the people of Texas want ex-cons who have been convicted for sex crimes, murder and robbery out in our society using such drugs. Sometimes locking these individuals back up is the best answer to keep us safe.

For the most part, parolees in Texas have it easy. Monthy payments are not high and the rules are not complicated. Parole is much easier than being on probation in this state.

In reality, parolees are given several chances before a warrant is requested for their arrest. I my opinion they are given too many chances. If the parole system functioned the way it should be operated we could quickly fill our state prisons back up if we released everyone today.

Anonymous said...

Good comment. How many people that we are saying are "innocent" are actually career criminals?

The hug a thug crowd are rightly concerned that a person not be convicted for a crime he didn't commit. However, if these "innocent" people are career criminals we need to admit to this. Are we trying to cover up an important part of this story.

Anonymous said...

Tim Cole was hardly a thug. The other 38 DNA exonerees can hardly be described as thugs, except perhaps what they learned inside one of TDCJ's pole barns.

The real story is that Texas has lots of real thugs and criminals that need to be locked up without locking up those who are INNOCENT. That's the story. Period.

Of course, the good ole boys will still support the "close enough for me rule" which goes like this. "Well we might have missed this one but he probably committed some other crimes so lets just keep em locked up."

Idiots governing idiots. God help us.

Anonymous said...

Texas Justice organizations are driven by numbers....convictions is the word. Judges are a bunch of hacks that for the most part were ex=prosecutors and they keep the same mind-set on the the numbers ($$$) are king. Arguments can be made all day long about why and how the prison populations grow and have leveled off in Texas but the truth is that it's one of the most profitable enterprises in the world to the state as well as to the multitude of suppliers and contractors to the system.