Thursday, March 20, 2008

Whitmire coauthors Washpost op ed on "Cutting the prison rate safely"

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire co-authored an op-ed piece in the Washington Post today along with another state senator from Kansas on the topic of "Cutting the Prison Rate Safely." While opining that mass incarceration "has undoubtedly helped reduce the nation's crime rate," they write that
high numbers of nonviolent, lower-risk criminals have been swept up in the prison boom. Getting tough on them has gotten tough on taxpayers, without an adequate public safety benefit. A prison cell costs about $65,000 to build and $24,000 a year to operate. States spend nearly $50 billion a year on corrections, more than four times the amount from 20 years ago, and they are projected to spend an additional $25 billion over the next five years to accommodate more inmates.

For this much money the public expects lower recidivism rates and safer communities. Yet crime rates are still too high. Recidivism rates are still too high. And corrections spending is crowding out dollars for other pressing priorities such as health care and education.

Like many of our performance-minded colleagues across the country, we have wondered whether we are getting our money's worth out of prisons. For violent offenders and sex offenders, the answer is yes. For many nonviolent offenders and probation violators, the answer is no. We've got to find a better way.

Many states are doing just that. In law-and-order Texas, we expanded a network of residential treatment centers for low-risk, substance-abusing offenders in prison and under community supervision, as well as intermediate-sanction facilities for probation and parole violators. Texas might avoid increased incarceration costs for the next five years, saving taxpayers millions of dollars, according to the latest projections.

After Kansas found that nearly two-thirds of its prison admissions were probation and parole violators, the legislature set up an incentive program for community corrections programs. Counties that cut their revocation rates by 20 percent will get a share of new state funding -- money made available because of averted prison construction -- to help them hold violators accountable without using up prison cells.

Other states are taking similar steps. We aren't going soft on crime; we're getting smart on crime.

Our country has a million more prison beds today than it did just 20 years ago, yet the average time served behind bars has increased by only six months, to about three years. Holding inmates an extra six months costs a bundle, but greater reductions in recidivism may be achieved by the alternative treatment and sanctioning programs that have begun to be funded.

For the same price, we can put four offenders through a drug court or reentry program and actually alter the course of their criminal careers. Research has shown that by using new technologies and treatment strategies, community corrections programs can cut rates of repeat offenses by 25 percent. Rather than claiming new victims, these offenders have a decent shot at rejoining society, paying taxes and supporting their children.

Public safety spending, like other areas of government responsibility, is not exempt from the test of cost-benefit analysis. Taxpayers want the job done as effectively as possible. It's up to us as policymakers to consider all of the options and create an array of punishments and programs that deliver the biggest public safety bang for the buck.

Of all the states proposing progressive alternatives to prisons, you wouldn't think it'd be Texas and Kansas leading the national push for less reliance on incarceration and stronger community supervision systems, but there they are.


Anonymous said...

Whitmire did such a good job with reforming TYC; maybe he can screw up the entire correctional world by putting his friends to work on a national scale.

Anonymous said...

Well Senator Whitmire, time to clean up your mess. You hardened the sentences.

Anonymous said...

Treatment centres only work while the inmates are in them ~ many get let out right back to the same neighbourhoods they came from with even less chance of getting employment than they had before, and very soon reoffend and find themselves back in jail. You cant fix just one part of the system, you have to look at your society as a whole.

Methinks Whitmire might want to run for Governor next time....

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Now, now, this is what I've been trying to tell y'all on other strings. Say what you will about Sen. Whitmire and TYC, and some of his statements and actions in that regard I cannot and will not defend. But his work (along with Jerry Madden) on the adult system has been truly visionary, and it's actually producing tangible results.

TYC turned into its own runaway train, and I've disagreed with him quite a bit on juvie stuff. But it's more than fair to say that none of the recent very positive reforms in the adult system could have happened without John Whitmire.

Anonymous said...

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else." - Winston Churchill

So much of the incarceration binge this country engaged in recently was because it was politically expedient to do so, rather than deal with root causes of crime leading to those incarcerations.

And of course, that also eventually devolves into who gets to determine what is a crime, such as what happened with drug prohibition. Namely, racist bigots practically condemned entire minorities to institutionalized oppression, thanks to false assumptions about the innate intelligence and moral fiber of those minorities making them susceptible to drug-induced rampages. Hence the drug laws of the early 20th century. Which laid out the blueprints for the rest of the century and the first decade of this one. But the money's all gone, and now we're hearing the inevitable change in tack: "Smart on crime."

Heh. We could have been that long ago, by not creating such a mess with making once-legal drugs illegal and thereby empowering the cartels. But, just as ol' Winston has pointed out, we've got no choice, now, as we've 'tried everything else'. Amazing how practical people get when their wallets start getting thin...

Anonymous said...

Scott: Please look at Whitmire and his peers "accomplishments" in the Adult system in the past 25 years.

Producing tangible results? Over 4,000 correctional officers positions vacant; equipment and facilities deteriorating; employee turn-over and inappropriate behavior higher than ever; medical care pitiful!

Yes he is a visionary person; a greater visionary than Hightower and Allen (sp), due to length of membership in the Texas Legislature.

The tangible results are disgusting!

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

Last post I agree. The probation officer suffers the same plight. All there is now is a low paid paper pusher that has no resources in which to operate. Some counties have made the whole thing work but other counties have put the population at risk. There is a happy middle ground but it will never work until you get probation officers that are trained to really try to change the behavior of the individuals on their caseloads.

Anonymous said...

When I worked in the probation department (1983/84) the goal was to collect the fees. The quickest way to revocation was failure to pay your fees. Supervision consisted primarily of "office supervision" (when the probationer appeared to pay his fees).

the caseload was high and the paperwork higher. When my supervisor asked me why I was resigning I told him I didn't go to college to be a clerk. By the way the pay was clerk's pay.

Retired 2004