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States cut prison costs in the face of budget crises

As states around the country struggle with monumental budget deficits this year, officials in some surprising locations are looking to an even more surprising line item to shave costs _ state prisons.

Like Nixon traveling to China, tough-on-crime governors are taking the lead in undoing punitive and expensive criminal justice policies forged during the last two decades.

With falling crime rates, declining prison populations, and mounting public support for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, public officials around the country should follow the lead of budget strapped states like Texas, Ohio and Louisiana that are finding ways to cut corrections while protecting public safety.

State budget makers anticipate a $40-billion shortfall next fiscal year, representing one of the most burdensome budget shortfalls ever. The last time states were faced with significant deficits in 1991, they collectively had to cut $7.6-billion, less than one fifth of this year's anticipated shortfall.

With $24-billion spent on incarcerating 1.2-million nonviolent prisoners, and one out of every 14 general fund dollars spent on prisons, officials can save substantially by cutting corrections instead of slashing school budgets and closing hospitals.

Furthermore, new polling finds a shift in public opinion in favor of an array of prevention, rehabilitation, and alternative sentencing approaches for nonviolent offenders, indicating that public officials have the green light from the public to sensibly reduce prison populations.

According to a poll released last month by the Open Society Institute, three-quarters of Americans approved of sentencing nonviolent offenders to probation instead of imprisonment, and a majority of the public supports eliminating mandatory sentencing laws and returning sentencing discretion to judges.

In separate polls in California and Pennsylvania, when asked where the state budget knife should fall, respondents indicated that prison costs should be the first to be trimmed.

As public opinion has shifted in favor of a more moderate approach to crime, and as state budgets have tightened, some very conservative states are rethinking their prison policies. In Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, Republican Gov. Mike Foster led the charge to return discretion to sentencing judges by supporting a Democrat-sponsored bill abolishing several mandatory sentences.

Republican-led states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Utah and North Dakota have shelved mandatory minimum laws or increased parole release of nonviolent prisoners. Republican governors in several states closed prisons last year as a cost-saving measure.

As state policymakers survey prospects for cutting correctional costs though prison population reductions, a menu of options exist for their consideration. It is estimated that modifying mandatory sentencing and returning discretion to judges will save Louisiana millions of dollars a year.

California's Proposition 36 law is projected to divert as many as 36,000 nonviolent prisoners into drug treatment, and save the state $100- to $150-million annually. Texas, with the nation's largest prison system, has reduced parole violations and increased parole release, thereby cutting its prison population by nearly 8,000 inmates. Restructuring sentencing guidelines has diverted around 10,000 offenders from prison in North Carolina.

Additionally, two groups of prisoners warrant particular consideration because, while their release would not significantly affect public safety, their incarceration is especially expensive. The number of women incarcerated for drug offenses has risen by 888 percent since 1986. More than 70 percent of women prisoners are nonviolent offenders, almost all are classified as "low-risk," and their recidivism rate is lower than that of men.

Incarcerating mothers is extremely costly; University of Chicago researchers estimate that calculating foster care and related costs with the expense of incarcerating women in Illinois may bring the total annual cost to as much as $58,000 per prison mother.

In the next decade, the number of prisoners who are 55 years and older will make up 20 percent of the total U.S. prison population. The majority of elderly prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Due to their health care needs, the elderly cost more than three times as much to incarcerate as younger prisoners.

According to the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a release policy targeting nonviolent prisoners over 55 who have served at least one-third of their sentence would save more than $900-million annually.

The 2002 legislative season finds most states still wrestling with recession-driven deficits that have been deepened by the tragedy of Sept. 11. These state budget crises have prompted Republicans and Democrats in some states to rethink who really should be sent to prison and who can be kept home with their families to work, take part in rehabilitation programs, and pay back the community for the harm they have caused. Policymakers across the country would do well to follow their example.

Knight Ridder/Tribune

Judith Greene and Vincent Schiraldi are with the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and public policy organization.