Preventing overcrowding in our prisons is becoming a high priority for some state officials. The Public Safety Performance Project has put together a report on the issue in which it predicts large increases in incarceration rates and related state spending in the next five years if legislatures don’t change prison policies. This week alone I read three articles highlighting efforts in Texas, Kansas, Rhode Island, and California.
One article praised Texas and Kansas as being “recent innovators” in seeking alternatives to more prisons. These states have begun to put efforts into rehabilitation and preventing recidivism. They are beginning to think in practical terms about proper sentencing for nonviolent offenses and treatment for drug offenders. Rather than using funds to build more prisons, they are looking into building treatment facilities for offenders who have substance abuse problems. These prisoners usually receive harsh sentences for their crimes and enter prisons with no rehabilitation facilities.
In Kansas, the governor, Kathleen Sebelius, signed into law a prison plan that includes the opportunity for low-risk inmates to have their sentences reduced through participation in educational programs or counseling while incarcerated. Michigan, Nevada, and Washington have also announced similar plans.
California’s overcrowded prisons have also been the subject of criticism, and last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was forced to declare a state of emergency because of this issue. The state now has a panel in place that will review current programs and make recommendations for improvement. The panel has already identified “re-incarcerating low-risk offenders” as one issue. Many parolees end up back in prison for minor violations of their parole, such as missing meetings. The panel has suggested that in these cases parolees be directed to community programs rather than being re-incarcerated.
Rhode Island is setting records for growth in its prison population and subsequent costs to taxpayers, the Providence Journal reports. The state is also moving in the direction of creating drug rehabilitation facilities and creating policies for release of prisoners who are incarcerated because they are unable to pay their court fines. A report titled Court Debt and Related Incarceration in Rhode Island, written by the Rhode Island Family Life Center, states that “Incarcerations for court debt currently comprise 17 percent of all pretrial commitments in the state of Rhode Island.” It also finds that “15 percent of these incarcerations cost the state more than the amount owed by the individuals.” Now, that doesn't make much sense at all.
Our prison systems are overcrowded, juveniles are frequently being sentenced as adults, and drug addicts are receiving long and harsh sentences without any sort of treatment. All of this is making a huge dent on the taxpayer's dollar, yet we have not seen the intended results. It's a breath of fresh air to see that some states are moving in different directions in an attempt to correct some of these longstanding issues. I hope that more states follow suit.