Skip to comments.Inmates Go Free to Help States Reduce Deficits By
Posted on 12/19/2002 5:48:54 AM PST by Kerberos
LEXINGTON, Ky., Dec. 18 They began walking out of the Fayette County Jail here this afternoon, the first of 567 Kentucky state prison inmates that Gov. Paul E. Patton abruptly ordered released this week in a step to reduce a $500 million budget deficit.
Governor Patton said only nonviolent offenders were being given the early mass commutation. But those let out today included men convicted of burglary, theft, arson and drug possession, some of them chronic criminals.
"A percentage of them are going to recommit a crime, and some of them are going to be worse than the crimes they are in for," Mr. Patton acknowledged in announcing the emergency releases. But, he added, "I have to do what I have to do to live within the revenue that we have."
It is a quandary that confronts an increasing number of politicians across the nation in this time of deficits. After three decades of building ever more prisons and passing tougher sentencing laws, politicians now see themselves as being forced to choose between keeping a lid on spending or being tough on crime.
As a result, states are laying off prison guards, or giving prisoners emergency early releases like those in Kentucky. Some states have gone so far as to repeal mandatory minimum sentences or to send drug offenders to treatment rather than to prison in an effort to slow down the inflow of new inmates.
And in other locales, prosecutors or courts have placed a moratorium on misdemeanor cases like shoplifting, domestic violence and prostitution.
"What has happened is that as corrections has grown so enormously and consumed so many resources, it has finally become a target for budget cutters as the economy has turned down," said Chase Riveland, a former director of the corrections departments in Washington and Colorado and now a prison consultant.
The pressure to change stems from the math. Since the early 1970's, the number of state prisoners has risen 500 percent, making corrections the fastest growing item in most state budgets.
With more than two million inmates currently in state and federal prisons and local jails, the bill for corrections has reached $30 billion, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
To cope, Iowa has laid off prison guards. Ohio and Illinois have closed prisons.
Montana, Arkansas and Texas, along with Kentucky, have discovered loopholes that allow them to release convicted felons early, getting around the strict truth-in-sentencing laws and no parole policies passed in the 1990's that were supposed to prevent such releases.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Frank Keating, a conservative Republican who added 1,000 new inmates a year to the state's once small prison system, has asked the Pardon and Parole Board to find 1,000 nonviolent inmates to release early as a result of the state's budget crisis.
"Oklahoma has always prided itself on being a law-and-order state," said Cal Hobson, a Democrat who is president of the State Senate. "Now we've got more law and order than we can afford."
In Virginia Beach, Commonwealth Attorney Harvey L. Bryant III, the local prosecutor, has announced that because of state cutbacks to his office's budget, he will no longer prosecute the 2,200 misdemeanor domestic violence cases he gets a year.
"I deeply regret that the victims of domestic violence will no longer have a prosecutor on their side," said Mr. Bryant, a Republican. "But something had to go. I'm two assistant attorneys short."
All of these changes will save some money, but will not undo the fiscal imbalances caused by the prison boom of the 1980's and 1990's, said Nicholas Turner, director of national programs at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, a research organization.
To make larger savings, a number of states have begun to look at more fundamental changes in the very laws they passed over the past two decades.
Last week the legislature in Michigan, faced with a budget deficit and prison overcrowding, voted to repeal the state's strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes which have led to even life sentences for possession of cocaine or heroin. John Engler, the departing Republican governor, is expected to sign the bill into law.
In Kansas, the Kansas Sentencing Commission will recommend to the Legislature next month a new policy under which people arrested for simple drug possession, with no record of prior arrests for violent crimes or drug trafficking, will be placed in mandatory treatment instead of sent to prison.
Since the sentencing commission is made up of a bipartisan group of legislators, as well as prosecutors and judges, the plan is expected to pass the Legislature.
Savings under the new policy will be sizeable, said Barbara Tombs, the executive director of the commission.
About 1,500 of Kansas' 9,000 inmates are projected to be eligible, with the cost for a year in drug treatment about $2,500 compared with $21,000 for a year in prison. And, because Kansas had earlier eliminated most drug treatment in its prisons, the commission forecasts that recidivism should be lower, saving the cost of locking drug addicts up over and over.
"I think this is critical for Kansas," Ms. Tombs said. "We are at capacity now in our prisons, and we are either going to have to build a new prison, which we cannot afford, or institute alternative sentencing policies for some offenders."
"We don't want to do what Kentucky is doing," Ms. Tombs said, "letting dangerous people out the back end."
Similarly, in Alabama, where a judge has fined the state for dumping inmates on county jails, a sentencing commission will make reform recommendations to the Legislature early next year to stem the inflow of prison inmates. These measures include restoring flexibility for judges in making sentencing decisions and placing more offenders on probation or in halfway houses rather than in the state's prisons.
Georgia, Utah, Idaho and Nebraska are all considering some version of these sentencing overhauls to reduce the number of new state inmates.
Mr. Turner, noting that most of the states making fundamental changes are controlled by Republicans, said: "This seems like one of those Nixon goes to China things. After years of being tough on crime, only Republicans have the credentials to change prison policy."
Moreover, Mr. Turner said, the politicians making these reforms, and those ordering early release of inmates, have been helped by the decline in the crime rate over the past decade, reducing public anxiety about crime.
A few states have bucked the trend. New York, for example, which has one of the largest prison systems, has been able to avoid early releases or major changes in sentencing because the large drop in crime in New York City has meant fewer people going to prison.
In Lexington today, Vincent Thomas walked out of the Fayette County Jail a free man, without even the need to report to a parole officer or pass urine tests for drugs.
Mr. Thomas paused to shake hands with Glenn Brown, the county jailer, said thanks to Governor Patton for releasing the 567 inmates and promised he would stay clean and not come back.
Ray Larson, the Fayette commonwealth's attorney, expressed skepticism.
"By letting them out, we know they are sooner or later going to commit more crimes," said Mr. Larson, a Democrat who has been elected prosecutor here since 1982.
The seven men released from the Fayette County Jail today, Mr. Larson noted, had a total of 21 prior felony convictions and 130 convictions for misdemeanors. And they probably have even longer records, Mr. Larson said, because in Kentucky first-time offenders seldom get convicted except for the most serious crimes.
"It is a discouraging day to people in law enforcement," Mr. Larson said. "It will probably follow that the crime rate will rise, and judges will be reluctant to sentence these people to prison only to see them released."
Governor Patton, a Democrat, specified that those released were all convicted of Class D felonies, the lowest level under Kentucky law. They had an average of 80 days remaining on their sentences.
Most of those released today have been held in county jails around Kentucky, instead of in the state's prisons, because Kentucky's prison population now more than 15,000 has grown faster than the number of state prison beds.
The releases, some of which took place today, with another batch to be freed on Friday, will result in an immediate savings of $1.3 million, Governor Patton said.
Some politicians expressed support for the governor's action, saying they do not oppose the early release of nonviolent offenders but do oppose higher taxes.
"It's very expensive to warehouse someone who's not a threat to the community," said Dan Kelly, a Republican who is majority leader in the State Senate.
On the other hand, Kentucky's attorney general, Ben Chandler, a Democrat, said, "It is my opinion that the amount of time a criminal serves in prison should be based on the crime committed, not on the balance of the state treasury."
Two, why are these scum just being turned out, as opposed to placed on parole or under home-confinement (electronic monitoring?) Our local prosecutor said this is a "get out of jail free card." Many prosecutors are very angry over this and they should be.
Three, this is a scare tactic designed to cause citizens to more receptive to tax increases the Governor wants and will propose. We have viable Republicans running for Governor next year and what this Democrat Governor is doing demonstrates the very serious need for a change.
I had this to say yesterday regarding politicians methods to soften up the people for tax increases...
Run your memory banks and think of all the times that your state and other states have found themselves with a looming "budget shortfall". The people say NO to tax increases at the outset. The politicians then draw up a plan to reduce spending to avoid having to raise taxes. What services do they say will "need" to be cut to avoid a tax increase? Every time it is fire, police, education, and healthcare. This then gets enough people worried that these services will be cut and they don't want that to happen. The people then relent and accept that taxes must be increased to "save" these services.
From this thread
"Sorry we let this scum out and he killed your little girls Mrs. Johnson, but you gotta understand, we were looking for ways to save money."
I have a cost-cutting idea - Stop treating the inmates so damn well - a cell and 2 meals a day and no special conveniences and only emergency medical would be a start - make prison a place to be avoided and it will add to the deterrence effect.
<SesameStreet>Which of these is not like the others?
Which of these doesn't belong?</SesameStreet>
Release all possession-only prisoners of the WOD immediately, and the overcrowding problem is solved.
Let's hear the Holy Drug Warrior crowd's take on this Sesame Street question.
I would also suggest a shift in emphasis to recompense to victims instead of "paying a debt to society". No one should be allowed to get away with crime by just serving time. Serving time should be in addition to having to make recompense.
And that would not surprise me as it seems I have seen this tactic employed before. But then again the whole crime issue seems to, more often than note,be employed as a scare tactic.
Over the years I have noticed that politicians tend to run on the crime issue when one of two conditions are present.
1. They don't really have and issue to run on.
2. They want to avoid the real issues of the day.
It's a pretty safe tactic to run a campaign on in that you can proclaim "if you elect me I'm ,reeeeeally going to do something about crime," and it's a pretty safe bet that there's not too many town hall meetings you would go to where people would say, "I don't know, more crime is something I would like to see in our community."
I've also noticed that in some instances after being elected they actually do pass some law or measure that is targeted as being tough on crime but in the end it doesn't seem to have much of an appreciable effect. More often than not, it appears that when we do have a noticeable decrease in crime it is more due to demographic changes than anything else.
And although the governor of Kentucky in this instance is a Democrat there are other statements present throughout the article that would suggest that Republicans favor this approach as well. Most notable is the following.
Mr. Turner, noting that most of the states making fundamental changes are controlled by Republicans