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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.

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 Corrections and 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 Economist magazine described it as nearing fiscal "oblivion."