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States seek alternatives to more prisons July 9, 2007

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

With swelling prison populations cutting into state budgets, lawmakers are exploring ways to ease overcrowding beyond building expensive new correctional facilities.

Though the construction of prisons continues as states struggle to provide enough beds for those behind bars, legislators increasingly are looking at other ways to free up space and save money, including expanded programs to help prevent offenders from being incarcerated again, earlier release dates for low-risk inmates and sentencing revisions.

Criminal justice analysts point to Kansas and Texas as recent innovators. Both states are putting off building new prisons, focusing instead on rehabilitation and recidivism. At the same time, a new $7.7 billion prison spending plan in California – where overcrowding last year forced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to declare a state of emergency – has met with skepticism. Critics call the plan “prison expansion, not prison reform” and say the initiative relies on impractical fixes such as shipping inmates out of state.

State spending on prisons surged 10 percent nationally last fiscal year (see graphic) and growing inmate populations played a lead role in those costs, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Corrections trails only education and health care in swallowing state dollars, and experts say lawmakers are responding to the budgetary pressures by trying more cost-effective approaches.

“We’re seeing more and more states in different regions and with different political leadership tackling this issue and recognizing that the more they spend on prisons, the less they have to spend on health, education and other priorities,” said Adam Gelb, project director of the Public Safety Performance Project.

The project – which, like Stateline.org, is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts – in February forecast steep increases in incarceration rates and state spending in the next five years unless legislatures enact policy changes.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) last month signed into law a prison plan that is winning accolades for its creativity. Among other measures, the $4.4 million package provides financial incentives to community correctional systems for reducing prisoner admissions and allows some low-risk inmates to reduce their sentences through education or counseling while behind bars.

Under the plan, the state offers grants to localities for preventing “conditions violations” such as parole or probation infractions – a leading cause of prison overcrowding in Kansas and nationwide. To qualify for the grants, communities must cut recidivism rates by at least 20 percent using a variety of support tactics.

The early-release provision would cut time served by 60 days for some offenders who successfully complete programs that decrease their chances of returning to prison. Several other states, including Michigan, Nevada and Washington, recently announced plans to release some low-risk offenders early through similar initiatives, including good-time credits and expanded work-release programs.




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