Saturday, September 05, 2009

Some states actually shutting down prison units

According to this Wall Street Journal story ("Lights Out at the Penitentiary," Sept. 5) and accompanying graphics, Michigan will close eight prison units because of budget cuts, paroling some prisoners early and moving the rest to other units. The Journal views this as part of a larger trend:
For three decades, state and local governments built and filled jails to make good on promises to get tough on crime. Now, the recession and collapsing budgets are forcing an about face.

Prisons are one of the biggest single line items in many state budgets, in part because nearly five times as many people are now behind bars as in the 1970s. From California to New York, officials are now closing penitentiaries and releasing inmates early. At least 26 states have cut corrections spending in fiscal year 2010, and at least 17 are closing prisons or reducing their inmate populations, according to the Vera Institute on Justice, a criminal-justice reform organization in New York.
IMO prison and jail capacity fundamentally determines incarceration rates. Whenever Legislatures construct more prisons, the justice system fills up however many beds they create. If you build it, they will come. So states actually reducing capacity seems like an extraordinary development, definitely a moment of departure from the last 30 years' carceral trends.

RELATED: From the LA Times, "Cash-strapped states revise laws to get inmates out." MORE: For blog coverage from two states currently cutting prison budgets, see California Corrections Crisis and Think Outside the Cage out of Colorado.


JSN said...

If a sheriff opens a new jail he will find that the County Board of Supervisors will want him to earn income for the county by leasing unused beds to other counties or to the federal government. The judges will also fill unused beds by sentencing people to jail for offenses where they formerly used probation. So you are correct the jail will be promptly filled.

The prisons are filled by reducing the rate that prisoners are paroled, increasing the rate of parole/probation revocations and using incarceration instead of probation as a sentence. It depends on local circumstances which mechanism is the most important in filling unused beds. In any case any new beds will be promptly filled.

I think it is possible to safely reduce the prison population if it is done at a slow rate of about 2% per year over a period of ten or more years. If you try to reduce it at a faster rate there is a risk that community supervision will be overloaded and there will be nasty surprises that could cause a strong push-back.

Anonymous said...

Incarceration rates are not driven by crime, they are driven by policy choices that do two things -- increase the number of people who are sentenced to prison and increase the length of stay.

As result of the "tough on crime" ideology we have become the world leader in use of incarceration. Quite literally, the US is toughest in the world when it comes imprisonment of offenders. However, being tough on offenders (criminals) is not the same thing as being tough on crime. Crime and criminals are not synonymous. Criminals commit crimes but severely punishing criminals, even in large numbers, does little to reduce crime. In short, high crime rates will continue to occur in the same places and among the same people regardless of how many individuals are punished.

In this sense, severe sentences for individual criminals can be viewed as being "soft on crime" because it does nothing about the social, political, and economic conditions that are strongly and consistently associated with street crime as a social problem.

If we really want to get tough on the social problem of crime we need to focus more efforts and resources on crime prevention.
Enforcement will only remove current bad actors. Removing offenders create job openings for others waiting in the wings to replace them. Prevention strategies are aimed at slowing down the flow of replacements by improving quality of life for residents in high crime neighborhoods.

There are widely recognized and effective approaches to this that build social capital (ability of residents to work collectively to improve their neighborhoods) and collective efficacy (ability of residents to provide prosocial feedback on behavior to others -- particularly kids. Perhaps the most promising approaches are those linked to restorative and community justice. Check out the "Safe Streets" project in Minneapolis.

Anonymous said...

Soooo. No prisons, no criminals right Grits?

Independent Accountant said...

I largely agree with you. Texas parole rates have plunged in recent years. Now only 50% of offenders even get discretionary mandatory supervision. Our prisons are filled with minor drug posession cases and bad check passers. Few criminals are the "real bad actors" we imagine belong there: robbers, rapists and murderers.

Independent Accountant said...

This is an application of Parkinson's Law, "Work expands to fill the time available". Now it's "the number of prisoners a state has, rises to fill all available beds".

Anonymous said...

Dear Independent accountant,

Only 31% of those eligible for parole actually get paroled each year and as you could read in the Statesman article 8-31 they tend to be the worse offenders. Those with good time, who are well behaved, have done half of their very long Texas sized sentence who don't pose a threat to society seem to get nixed by the parole board. Just ask any one with a loved in prison who has come up for parole. That is a travesty.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Soooo. No prisons, no criminals right Grits?"

Of course that's not true. There have always been criminals, and always will be. Most, as is the case right now, will continue to be supervised in the community on probation or parole, so the way to reduce incarceration IMO is making those systems stronger and more robust.

There are folks who need to be locked up, but not nearly as many a we've got in there right now.

Anonymous said...

Yes Grits, there are ways to lock up the ones who need to be locked up (mostly violent offenders - murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, etc.) and more robust probation, parole and reentry support systems would be appropriate and necessary. But, these alone are not sufficient.

We need to focus more policy and resources on prevention -- getting ahead of the offending problem. We have invested heavily in reactive response with little over all impact. While devoting almost nothing to prevention.

Robust efforts at crime prevention is a large part of what is missing. It is the missing half of an effective policy response to crime -- working to improve quality of life for residents in high crime areas.

Most of the street criminals of tomorrow are borne into and raised by families that cannot or do not needs their human needs. They are also being raised in neighborhoods with multiple layers of disadvantage that remain regardless of how many are residents are arrested, convicted and imprisoned. It is these same neighborhoods to which these offenders return when they return after incarceration -- ill prepared to rebuild non-criminal lives.

Justice policy is about balance and fairness in society -- it is not synonmous with criminal justice policy. This moves the policy discourse about crime in a different direction.

Anonymous said...

Local buisnesses need cheap labor, and people with a mark on their record are blacklisted out of good jobs for years even after paying their debt to society via background checks, licensing issues, etc... Shucks, we can get you on the sex registry for mooning someone these days, Don't Mess With Texas or we'll Scarlett Letter you, pardner. Well, well, well, what we have here is the perfect opportunity for the private sector to yet again cut in on a bloated goverment program! So if budget issues draw attention to the incarceration rates, then perhaps ISP ( Intensive Supervision Probation ) will be the lower cost and under the radar method of providing cool spy jobs to all of those vets coming home from overseas, I'm sue the mafia won't mind doing their patriotic duty to share a cut of those jobs...That way, probation stats can be expanded as funding is shifted, and it can be the perfect idea for fulfilling Obama's pledge to build a civilian domestic security infrastructure that's just as large and well-funded and powerful as our military
force (sic). And don't give me any liberal belly aching about cruel and unusual punishment or a Stasi amerika.
Fa-get-about-it, pawdner.

Hook Em Horns said...

Texas has plenty of criminals but our prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders, bad check writers and dwi's. The clue phone is ringing off the wall but as usual, law and order idiots just dont get it. They see prison as solving crime. All prison does is warehouse PEOPLE. Period.

Unknown said...

My husband in is Wayne Scott Unit (full of murderers, rapists and child molesters) and all he did was 20 yrs ago wrote a bad check. He was sentenced in 1996 and served 4.6 yrs and got out on parole. The Parole Office came after him 9 yrs later, when his parole had run out! He is not violent! He is a family man and lived as a solid citizen for over ten yrs. He reported to the parole office in 2000 and they never assigned him another parole officer and they had his mother's address where he was, until we went to New Mexico and they picked him up in June 2009! NINE YEARS LATER they came after him! It IS a "travesty of justice!"