Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Corrections and the Recession

To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies:

For nearly three decades, most states have dealt with lawbreakers in two ways: lock more of them up for longer periods, and build more prisons to hold them. Now many governments, out of money and buried under mounting prison costs, are reversing those policies and practices.

Some states, like Colorado and Kansas, are closing prisons. Others, like New Jersey, have replaced jail time with community programs or other sanctions for people who violate parole. Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill this month that enhances the credits some inmates can earn toward release.

Being tough on crime and sentencing has long been the clear path toward job retention for state lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike. But the economic crisis is forcing them to take a more pragmatic approach as prisoners are increasingly seen less as indistinct wrongdoers and more as expenses that must be reined in.

Recessions tend to prompt changes to corrections policies. After the recession at the start of this decade, numerous states enacted laws eliminating some long mandatory minimum sentences; several began to offer early release and treatment options to some drug offenders. Those changes, though, were far less reaching than what is happening now and did little to curb exploding corrections budgets.

In the past 20 years, correction department budgets have quadrupled and are outpacing every major spending area outside health care, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States. With 7.3 million Americans in prison, on parole or under probation, states spent $47 billion in 2008, the study said.

Faced with such costs, even states known for being particularly tough on crime are revisiting their policies and laws.
Color me skeptical. It's a stretch to assume that "revisiting their policies" necessarily means they are going to release inmates or reduce overall correctional costs. And while this may be happening in some areas of the country, those states in the vanguard of lock 'em up and throw away the key are considering no such things.

Here in Georgia, for example, the bulk of the cuts made to the Department of Corrections have been targeted at diversion centers, transition centers, and other alternatives to incarceration which fall under the aegis of Corrections. They have also cut prison chaplains, and there have even been discussions of furloughing correctional staff, including correctional officers.

But no prisoners have been let out, no legislative efforts are underway to re-think the one, two and three strikes policies from the 90's (which have ballooned Georgia's prison population to over 53,000), and the one prison which has closed in the past year (Milan) apparently was closed for structural conditions.

As I've written over and over on this blog, the literature is rife with examples to the contrary, regarding economic downturns and imprisonment. Following the 1982 recession, imprisonment became seen as a Keynesian stimulus: a way to create jobs and stimulate the economy by prison building, as well as remove those who had been put out of work by the recession from society, all at the same time.

As we put more and more people out of work and onto the streets, crime goes up and, invariably, a call for "getting tough" follows. That will lead to more prisons and continued growth in correctional-industrial complex. No politician will run on "I'm for closing prisons in these tough economic times," save for those committing political suicide.

Sorry, but the old adage that imprisonment is "recession-proof" still holds, in my book.

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