Monday, October 20, 2008

Texas' example cited as way to smartly reduce prison costs

Texas' recent shift toward strengthened probation, expanded treatment and especially the proliferation of drug courts was given credit by an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor ("One way to cut prison costs," Oct. 20) for pioneering ways to cut prison costs without harming public safety, an approach now under consideration by the US Sentencing Commission.

The expanding number of adults in prisons and jails in the US is nearing 2.5 million – more than 1 in 100 adults – the world's highest incarceration rate. As federal and state lawmakers try to downsize budgets, they should reconsider some of the tough-on-crime laws that have helped swell the prison population.

That's what the US Sentencing Commission is doing. It's reviewing ways to ease federal mandatory minimum sentences passed by Congress in the mid-1980s. The minimums for first-time offenders apply mostly to drug crimes. The commission is considering recommendations that, if approved by lawmakers, could have nonviolent drug users opt for treatment instead of time behind bars.

States, which have mandatory minimum laws of their own, would do well to watch closely, because prisons account for a large part of their budgets. In 20 years, state general-fund spending on corrections has risen 127 percent, adjusted for inflation, according to a recent study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States. Nationwide, the annual cost of incarceration is an average $24,000 per inmate.

The Sentencing Commission is considering drug courts and treatment as a far less expensive alternative – between $1,500 and $11,000 per offender.

Of course, Texas prison system is asking for a 10.5% budget hike next year to pay for guarding the same number of offenders (and may still be lowballing the real costs), so reforms here haven't eliminated rising prison costs, but they dramatically reduced the rate of increase, much to the relief of budget writers who before that were nervously looking at a flood of future red ink.

Kudos to Texas legislators from both sides of the aisle for backing smart-on-crime approaches that national opinion leaders are looking to as a model.

RELATED: From Doc Berman, see "Proceedings from US Sentencing Commission imprisonment alternative symposium," including a link to materials from the symposium.


Anonymous said...

If they really want to save incarceration costs, they could legalize illegal drugs. Of course, heath and auto insurance costs will go up, as well as increases in social services. Someone has to pay for the bums hanging around enjoying their out-of-body experiences.

Anonymous said...

Let the men and women out who got the raw end of the deal in the 1990's when TX was handing out extremely large sentences to first time offenders! It's like they are caught in a black hole of prison hell.