States Save Billions by Downsizing Prisons

By Stuart Bramhall

Owing to candidates tripping over each other to be tough on immigrants and crime, the crisis of massive prison overcrowding is an issue that receives scant attention in an election year. Although federal candidates, including Obama and Romney, seem totally indifferent to the prison crisis faced by many states, most governors and state legislators have accepted the hard reality that building and running prisons is one of their biggest budget items. Since the economic crisis began in 2008, every state except Montana and North Dakota has faced yearly shortfalls. Because states aren’t allowed to run deficits, these have led to big cuts in many essential state programs, including education, housing and even highway maintenance and repair. As the economy and tax revenues continue to falter, 31 states predict a shortfall for fiscal year July 2012-June 2013 – which means they face even further cuts.

Thus despite massive lobbying by the Corrections Corporations of America, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, Cornell Corrections and their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for states to build more for-profit private prisons, California and fourteen other states have enacted or are about to enact legislation to balance their state budgets by reducing prison numbers. During a recession, even corporate lobbyists don’t have the same hold they once did over state legislatures. As my mother used to say, you can’t get blood out of a turnip.


California’s Criminal Justice Realignment Act

California clearly leads the nation in this initiative. When the US Supreme Court (in May 2011) upheld a lower court ruling ordering them to reduce overcrowding, the state had the hard choice between borrowing money and building more prisons or adopting the Criminal Justice Realignment Act, which seeks to move nonviolent offenders out of the prison system and find alternatives to custodial sentences for new offenders. Under the Realignment Act, the number of people in California prisons has dropped by more than 25,000 over 16 months. The count of people on parole is down almost 30,000, and the number of people held in private out-of-state prisons is down 10 percent. Cynics predicted that putting tends of thousands of offenders on the street would cause a massive spike in the crime rate. Instead the opposite has happened.

As former Assembly member Jackie Goldberg noted in a recent editorial in the Sacramento Bee, the California crime rate continues to fall, despite the release of thousands of nonviolent prisoners. Meanwhile putting fewer people in state prisons means saving billions in tax dollars. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that it’s saving $1.5 billion a year through realignment and will save another $2.2 billion a year by canceling $4.1 billion in new construction projects.

According to the ACLU, other states saving money by cutting and/or slowing the growth of their prison populations include:

  • Alabama – passed law allowing a sentencing commission to set guidelines for nonviolent crimes judges would generally have to follow.
  • Colorado – shut down large penitentiary in view of falling crime rates, created a commission to study marijuana legalization, has initiative on November ballot to legalize marijuana.
  • Connecticut – became 17th state to repeal death penalty in April.
  • Florida – closed eight prisons that were built in anticipation of a crime wave that never occurred.
  • Georgia – passed bill reducing sentences for low level drug offenses and theft, creates drug and mental illness courts and establishes graduated sanctions, such as community service, for probation violations.
  • Hawaii – passed law requiring the use of risk assessments in pretrial and parole hearings, to enable the identification of individuals who pose the most risk to public safety, as well as those who can be safely supervised outside of prison or jail.
  • Illinois – passed SB 2621, which would reinstate a program allowing prisoners to reduce their sentences through good behavior and participation in reentry programs. The bill will reduce Illinois’ prison population and give prisoners incentives to participate in programs that are proven to reduce recidivism, such as drug treatment.
  • Kansas – passed a law allowing judges to divert individuals convicted of low-level crimes from prison to less expensive and more effective treatment programs.ouisiana – passed one law allowing prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes to go before a parole board to prove they are ready for release and another allowing inmates who have committed repeat low-level offenses to appear before a parole board after serving one-third of their sentences.
  • Louisiana – passed one law allowing prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes to go before a parole board to prove they are ready for release and another allowing inmates who have committed repeat low-level offenses to appear before a parole board after serving one-third of their sentences.
  • Maryland – passed law increasing the number of offenses that must be and can be charged by a citation instead of arrest and detention.
  • Missouri – passed one law reducing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses and another sending fewer people back to prison for technical violations of probation and parole, such as a missed meeting or failed drug test.
  • Washington State – created the LEAD program, which diverts individuals charged with low-level offenses into community-based services, such as drug treatment, immediately after arrest and before booking. This is in addition to a ballot initiative in November to legalize marijuana.

States with pending legislation:

  • Massachusetts – the state house and senate are working out a compromise on an omnibus criminal justice reform bill (a compromise of H3811 and S2054), which includes reforming the state’s habitual offender law and reducing sentences for some nonviolent offenders.
  • Rhode Island – considering SB 2253 and HB 7092, which would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Instead of facing jail time, individuals found with less than one ounce of marijuana will be punished with alternative sanctions, such as a fine.

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