States Reconsider Crime Policies
Crary, Associated Press
March 4, 2003
uneasy; longtime advocates of sentencing reform are blinking in amazement.
After years of tough-on-crime measures that boosted America's prison
population to 2 million, politicians in many states are reversing course.
avert projected deficits, legislatures nationwide have curtailed
corrections spending - or are at least considering it - by releasing
inmates early, closing prisons, diverting drug offenders to treatment
programs and moderating tough sentencing laws. The appetite for building
ever more prisons has faded.
to provide for the public safety must encompass more than simply locking
more people up for longer periods,'' said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
''If that's the extent of our strategy, we'll go broke.''
That kind of
talk - from a conservative Republican - is an exhilarating change for
critics of hardline corrections policies.
don't like to admit they made a mistake, but politically they've got more
cover now,'' said Mark Mauer, assistant director of a Washington-based
group advocating alternatives to imprisonment. ''It comes down to saving
money on prisons or increasing class size at their kids' schools.''
For more than a
decade, groups like Mauer's Sentencing Project protested with little
effect as states responded to the high crime rates of the 1980s by
building new prisons and toughening sentences. Petty thieves received life
terms under California's ''three strikes, you're out'' law, while ''soft
on crime'' became a dreaded epithet for politicians. The number of
offenders in America's prisons and jails soared from fewer than 1.2
million in 1990 to more than 2 million in 2000.
toward drug use have softened, crime rates have dropped and state budgets
- flush in the '90s - are in disarray.
''In 23 years
in the field, this is the most receptive atmosphere I've seen,'' said
Vincent Schiraldi of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, an
ally of the Sentencing Project.
to seize on this moment,'' said Kara Gotsch, policy coordinator of the
American Civil Liberties Union's Prison Project. ''We've been talking
about these ideas for so many years, and now - because of the financial
crisis - legislators on both sides of the aisle are enacting these exact
So pervasive is
the budget crisis that reforms of prison and sentencing policies are
unfolding even in states that prided themselves on get-tough policies.
Carolina's Corrections Department has suggested moneysaving options that
could free up to 4,000 inmates, including restarting a furlough program
and emergency releases of nonviolent offenders. In Oklahoma, a state
commission has recommended reducing sentences for drug possession and
strengthening community-based substance abuse programs.
does not necessarily require putting people in the penitentiary,'' said
Dick Wilkerson, an Oklahoma state senator. ''There's a misconception that
community corrections are a bunch of people sitting around in a circle
Huckabee wants to divert more drug violators into treatment programs and
find ways to handle parole violators without automatically returning them
to prison. Law enforcement officials remain wary.
lock up everyone,'' said Chuck Lange, director of the Arkansas Sheriffs
Association. ''But there are a group of people, they just have to be
incarcerated. Our trick in law enforcement is to decide which group you
County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, president-elect of the National
District Attorneys Association, said he and many colleagues are deeply
concerned that budget-cutters will take dangerous risks.
''Crime is down
because we put people in prison,'' he said. ''Yes, it's expensive to put
them there, but it's expensive when they come out and commit crimes.''
prosecutors are open to treatment as an option for nonviolent drug
offenders, but noted that such programs work only if well-funded.
responsibility as prosecutors is to see to it we're not endangering people
by making moves that may be great at saving money but could get somebody
killed,'' he said.
amid their excitement, worry that some states will accelerate inmate
releases without bolstering support programs that would help reduce
they'll just dump these people out on the streets without support,'' said
Herbert Hoelter, director of the National Center on Institutions and
many prosecutors and police officials were outraged when Gov. Paul Patton
- frustrated by a budget impasse - released 883 inmates in December and
January several months before their sentences ended. Four were arrested
within days of release; one was charged with rape, another with robbing
those crimes, Patton halted the early releases, but said they might resume
if legislators fail to address budget problems.
advocates in Kentucky had mixed feelings.
understand, in tough times for states, there's an urge to look for places
to do belt-tightening,'' said Marcia Roth, executive director of the Mary
Byron Foundation, a victim-support group. ''But we also know early
releases can lead to tremendous stress for crime victims.''
One of the most
sweeping reform proposals is on the legislative agenda in Washington
state, where get-tough laws and citizen initiatives since 1990 doubled
annual prison spending to more than $1 billion and filled prisons past
To cut costs,
Democratic Gov. Gary Locke has proposed shortening the sentences of
hundreds of inmates convicted of drug and property crimes, and eliminating
post-release supervision of thousands of low-risk offenders.
the legislature wouldn't touch this,'' said Joe Lehman, Locke's secretary
of corrections. ''This year, given the magnitude of the budget
difficulties, there's much more of a dialogue about how can we make it
of the risk,'' Lehman added. ''This is not about developing what you would
do ideally - but given the diminished resources, we've developed criteria
which we believe are sound.''
In some states,
cutbacks have angered prison employees. A guards' union in Ohio, for
example, is opposing a decision to close the 88-year-old Lima Correctional
Institution to save $25 million a year.
In New York,
the state budget crisis may help speed the demise of the so-called
Rockefeller drug laws, which have endured despite mounting criticism.
Enacted in the early 1970s, the laws can subject first-time offenders to
15 years to life in prison if convicted of selling as little as 2 ounces
of a drug or possessing as little as 4 ounces.
Faced with a
projected shortfall of $11.5 billion, Republican Gov. George Pataki and
lawmakers of both parties are interested in easing the laws to help reduce
prison costs. There is no consensus yet on the scope of the overhaul.
will be welcome - though late - for Jan Warren, 51, who spent more than 12
years in a New York prison for a cocaine possession offense that might
have incurred a one-year sentence, or even probation, in some states.
Now an advocate
for women in prison, with a job at the City University of New York, she
calculates the state paid more than $400,000 to imprison her from 1987 to
throwing people away,'' Warren said. ''The consequences of incarcerating
so many people, it's costing us more money in the long run.''