Facing South has reported how state budget crises are pushing lawmakers and prison officials to reevaluate the "tough-on-crime" sentencing policies of the past decade and find new ways to help released inmates avoid returning to prison.
Stateline.org reports this week on some of the variety of alternatives states are using to rein in corrections spending. According to Stateline.org:
Lawmakers in some states are slashing prisoner rehabilitation programs, releasing inmates early or packing them more tightly into crowded facilities to save money. Others are using technology, such as satellite tracking, to monitor sex offenders, drunken drivers and other criminals instead of keeping them behind bars. To avoid building new prisons, many states ship inmates to private facilities that often are thousands of miles away.
Other states are exploring long-term strategies aimed at preventing recidivism, a leading factor behind overcrowded prisons and jails -- and rising costs. At any given time, more than 2.3 million people are locked up in federal, state and local facilities in the United States, and more than half of those released from prison are back behind bars within three years, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Since 1980, the country's prison population has quadrupled, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase. In 2008, the Pew Center on the States released a study revealing that the United States continues to lock up record numbers of people in jail and prison -- one out of every 100 people is behind bars. Indeed the South continues to lead in U.S. prison population growth, and the rising costs of incarceration have taken a definite significant toll on Southern state budget.
Facing South reported in June 2008 that Kentucky, which has experienced the nation's largest prison population increase, suffered with state budget woes hampered by the amount of money the state spent on prisons.Stateline.org reports that Kentucky is an example of the difficult criminal justice decisions some states could face this year:
Faced with a surging prison population and a state budget more than $1 billion in the red, Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky lawmakers last year took a dramatic step that they hoped would save $30 million over two years: granting early release to more than 1,800 inmates, including some felons convicted of murder, rape and other violent crimes.
In its 2008 study Pew found that total state spending on corrections neared $50 million, but the high incarceration rate has had no discernable effect "either on recidivism or overall crime." Increasing budget woes are prompting states to get creative. Stateline.org reports that states are looking at a variety of approaches to reducing correctional spending including focusing on expanding rehabilitation opportunities and programs aimed at reducing recidivism, and supporting sentencing reforms to reduce overcrowding, such as legislation to ease mandatory-minimum sentences. Some states, such as Alabama and North Carolina, agreed to release elderly or terminally ill inmates who cost taxpayers millions for health care while behind bars; at least 34 other states also allow so-called compassionate releases of prisoners who pose little threat to society, reports Stateline.org.
Support for rehabilitation efforts has also made its way to Congress. According to Stateline.org, Congress last year passed the Second Chance Act, which authorizes millions of dollars in grants to state and local governments to help rehabilitate former offenders, and there strong expectation that the new Obama administration will fund the act.