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A Silver Lining to the Economic Crisis: Less Money for Prisons

As states grapple with record budget deficits, more politicians are looking toward criminal justice reform to cut costs.
 
 
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If you're seeking a silver lining to the current economic crisis, this may well be it: As states across the country confront historic budget shortfalls, more and more politicians are looking toward long-overdue criminal justice reform as a way to cut spending. Suddenly, the money local governments stand to save by slowing down incarceration rates is trumping the political costs traditionally associated with it.

Good news, perhaps, this evolution in thinking, but it's hardly a burst of innovation (let alone political courage). The nation's prisons have been dysfunctional and overcrowded for ages, reaching emergency levels in recent years. Around this time last year, a study released by the Pew Center found that 1 in 100 Americans was behind bars, a sobering statistic that spurred calls for reform, from news articles to op-eds, to (briefly) Hillary Rodham Clinton's primary campaign. One year later, the economic crisis has given reluctant governors and state reps the political cover to initiate reforms that they previously would have considered too risky. Virginia and Kentucky are pondering early release for thousands of low-level prisoners and Michigan, one of four states that spends more on incarceration than education, is considering deep reforms as well.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project recently told the Associated Press, "Many political leaders who weren't comfortable enough, politically, to do it before can now, under the guise of fiscal responsibility, implement programs and policies that would be win/win situations, saving money and improving corrections."

Most crucial, perhaps, is the focus on the parole system, where the uniquely American rush to incarcerate meets the ham-fistedness of our so-called war on drugs. According to federal parole statistics, at the end of 2007, more than 5.1 million adult men and women were "supervised in the community, either on probation or parole" in this country. That's 1 in every 45 adults. Furthermore, "the most common type of offense for which offenders were on parole was a drug offense."

California, Facing Fiscal 'Oblivion'

The cost of locking up parole violators has been a major drain on states' resources -- and no state knows this better than California. In 2002, a study by the Justice Policy Center calculated that the Golden State -- which leads the country in the size of its parole population and recidivism rates -- spent some $900 million a year to keep parole violators (who spend an average of five months in prison) incarcerated. That year, according to the same study, nearly 1 in 5 parolees lived in California.

California's prison system was so embattled that when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, he had almost no choice but to start looking at ways to overhaul it. He renamed it, from the California Department of Corrections to the California Department of Correctionsand Rehabilitation -- and set about refocusing on treatment and re-entry. Political push-back led to immediate setbacks from prison unions and interest groups operating under the banner of victims' rights, and within a couple of years, the central component to California's reform attempt -- parole reform -- was rolled back. In April 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported, "parole violators will no longer be diverted into drug-treatment programs, halfway houses and home detention instead of being returned to prison …"

"That strategy had been pushed by the Schwarzenegger administration as a way to save the state money by reducing the prison population -- and to improve the odds that ex-convicts would turn their lives around."

Now, however, California faces its biggest budget deficit in the state's history. The Economistmagazine described it as nearing fiscal "oblivion."

"California, first in many things, is facing America's worst budget crisis. The gap between projected revenues and spending during this fiscal year and next amounts to $41.6 billion, which is almost half the total sum that the state expects to raise next year."

Schwarzenegger's response has been to use the kind of fearmongering usually reserved for pushing tough-on-crime legislation to force the legislature to pass sweeping austerity measures. On Dec. 10, standing alongside a distressingly large clock that broke down the losses -- $470 a second, $28,000 a minute, $1.7 million an hour and $40 million a day -- he announced: "California faces a growing financial crisis, and if we don't put aside our ideological differences and negotiate and solve this problem, we're heading towards a financial Armageddon."

Among his proposals is getting rid of parole for nonviolent offenders altogether -- a radical measure for a state that is only one of a handful in the country that makes three- to five-year parole mandatory for anyone released from prison, regardless of the crime. If implemented, such a reform could dramatically reduce the recidivism rate.

According to the most recent data available on the CRDC Web site, of the more than 171,500 prisoners behind bars in California, 123,144 are locked up on parole violations.

Overall, Schwarzenegger's plan calls for an $842 million budget cut for the CDCR, according to the Sacramento Bee -- an "8.7 percent slash that would take the agency's overall spending down to about $9.6 billion."

While he's at it, the governor would do well to consider scrapping another wasteful pet project, scheduled to start this spring: a planned overhaul of San Quentin Prison's Condemned Inmate Complex -- otherwise known as death row -- at a time when the state's execution chamber has been inactive for almost three years. State politicians recently launched a bipartisan campaign to block the project, which one assemblyman describes as a looming "$1.6 billion blunder."

"The death row expansion is a bottomless money pit that will drain hundreds of millions of dollars from the state's massive and ever-increasing budget deficit," Republican Sen. Jeff Denham told reporters earlier this month. On Jan. 12, he introduced legislation to stop the project. According to the Los Angeles Chronicle, "if the state cuts this project as a midyear spending cut, it could save $18.6 million per year -- a total of $93.2 million in avoided operations and maintenance costs if the project is delayed five years."

Goodbye to New York’s Unjust Drug Laws?

California is not alone in re-examining its prison policies. In New York, where the notoriously harsh Rockefeller drug laws -- which impose mandatory minimum sentences for the sale or possession of small amounts of illegal drugs -- remain embedded deep in the fabric of the state, Gov. David Paterson recently announced his intention to roll them back, as well as plans to close 13 prisons and jails.

Paterson, who was once arrested at a protest against the Rockefeller drug laws in front of Gov. George Pataki's office, continued to be an outspoken supporter of prison-reform legislation until his unexpected rise to power last year. With New York embroiled in a serious deficit, Paterson suggested during his State of the State address earlier in 2008 that enough is enough. "Few public-safety initiatives have failed as badly and for as long as the Rockefeller drug laws," he said. "These laws did not work when I was elected senator in 1985, and they do not work today." Paterson also reiterated what may activists against the Rockefeller drug laws have argued for years: that the hard-fought reforms established a few years back were only a start.

"We enacted modest reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws in 2004. Yet these reforms still did not go far enough to expand the availability of drug-treatment programs, allow judges to order low-level offenders into mandatory treatment and assure that prisons are used for the most serious drug offenders," Paterson said.

Anthony Papa, an activist who served 12 years in prison under the Rockefeller drug laws before being granted clemency, believes Paterson is sincere in his efforts to overhaul the laws.

"He went to great lengths in showing he was sincere by getting arrested with us in 2002 at a protest … in front of then-Gov. George Pataki office in Midtown. I am hoping he remembers the fire that roared in his heart in the past and utilizes it to procure the much-needed reforms of a broken criminal-justice system." What's more, "I think the stars have aligned together to help him make the necessary changes if he takes the lead and follows his instinct." Indeed, with Democrats now controlling both legislative houses in the state, Paterson's initiative has a far greater chance of succeeding.

The Bad News

In both California and New York, the dramatic budget reductions cut both ways, and the potential for meaningful prison reform comes wrapped with measures that are devastating for other areas. Schools and hospitals will bear the brunt of Paterson's plan, which calls for $9 billion in spending cuts.

In California, education will suffer similarly deep cuts in funding. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "around the state, school administrators have begun looking at how many employees they can lay off next year and which programs they can cancel."

"This is the worst it's ever been in the state of California," one school superintendent said.

While the economic crisis alone does not necessarily mean a spike in crime rates, the social underpinnings of crime have everything to do with factors like education. The progress on prison reform spurred by the crisis is an ironic counterpoint to the harsh austerity measures we face across the country. It is too soon to tell what the implications will be of our economic meltdown, but prison reform is long overdue.