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New prison policies
for times of fiscal crisis    
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By James R. Coldren and Vincent Schiraldi

[JULY 12, 2003]  Policy-makers in some surprising places are looking to an even more surprising line item to shave costs -- prisons. This is a dramatic and welcome change, considering prison spending increased by 110 percent from 1985 to 2000 while higher education spending grew by 30 percent during that same time.

With falling or stabilizing crime rates, declining prison populations, and mounting public support for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, Illinois should follow the lead of some conservative, budget-strapped states that are finding ways to cut corrections while protecting public safety.

Safely reducing prison populations involves not only reducing the number of people incarcerated, but also implementing sound public policy that treats offenders and reduces rearrest rates. The state must avoid the mistake of releasing inmates to the community without access to appropriate reintegration services. Instead, we should follow the model of states that are developing comprehensive policies to save money and protect public safety by placing nonviolent offenders in alternative treatment programs. The state should also beef up community-based mental health services and stop using prisons and jails as holding cells for the mentally ill.

State, local and federal governments spend over $40 billion annually imprisoning nearly two million Americans. Because one out of every 14 general fund dollars is spent on prisons and because prisons are one of the fastest growing line items in state budgets, officials can save substantially by cutting corrections instead of slashing school budgets or eliminating health care coverage for the working poor.

Nationally, about $24 billion will be spent this year just to lock up 1.2 million nonviolent offenders. These are precisely the kinds of inmates the public believes should be held accountable in ways other than prison. According to a poll released in February by Hart Research Associates, three-quarters of Americans support sentencing nonviolent offenders to probation instead of imprisonment, and a substantial majority of the public supports eliminating mandatory sentencing laws and returning sentencing discretion to judges. Similarly, separate polls by Parade Magazine and ABC News, released in February and March respectively, found that three-quarters of Americans favored sentencing nonviolent offenders to alternatives to incarceration like probation and drug treatment rather than prison. In separate polls in California and Pennsylvania, when asked where spending cuts should be made, respondents answered that prison budgets should be trimmed first.


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As public opinion has shifted in favor of sensible alternatives to incarceration and state budgets have tightened, conservative states like Texas, Ohio and Michigan have rethought their prison policies. Texas, the state with the largest prison population, reduced its prison population by 8,000 after implementing alternative sanctions for parole violators instead of automatically returning them to prison for technical violations. In June, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas signed legislation diverting thousands of nonviolent offenders from prison into treatment. Before leaving office at the end of 2002, Michigan's governor, John Engler, approved legislation that repealed most of the state's mandatory minimum drug statutes. And Ohio's sentencing guidelines and parole reforms have combined to reduce the state's prison population by more than 3,400 since 1998, funding an increase in supervision and treatment programs to absorb nonviolent offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated.

More recently, Illinois has taken some important steps in the right direction when it comes to cutting corrections costs. The state is investing in treatment programs through the governor's promise to reopen the Sheridan Correctional Center as a drug treatment facility and to keep newly constructed, expensive prisons closed. The Illinois Legislature recently passed the "Redeploy Illinois" bill, which provides local communities a financial incentive to develop local continuums of care rather than relying on incarceration.

But Illinois can save even more money by instituting some sound criminal justice policies. Excessive prison spending can easily be reduced through viable, cost-effective alternatives to imprisoning nonviolent offenders, including community-based corrections facilities, halfway houses, intensive probation, day reporting and electronic monitoring. The state could also save money by providing compassionate leave for elderly and chronically ill inmates, a low-risk population. Finally, if Illinois embraces creative justice models for the adult and juvenile justice systems, many more individuals will be spared the retributive practices of the traditional justice system for more "restorative" practices that hold offenders accountable, while attending to victims' needs and preserving public safety.

Providing alternatives to incarceration could alleviate the current fiscal crisis and safely reduce the prison population, making it a feasible solution for Illinois.

[James R. Coldren and Vincent Schiraldi]    

Coldren is the president of the John Howard Association for prison reform in Illinois and Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2003 by the Illinois Editorial Forum, an educational organization that provides the media with the views of state experts on major public issues. Letters should be sent to Illinois Editorial Forum, P.O. Box 82, Springfield, IL 62705-0082.

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