Budget-crunched states push for more lenient sentencing
‘Tough-on-crime’ policies straining prison systems
ATLANTA — As costs to house state inmates have soared, many conservatives are reconsidering a tough-on-crime era that has led to stiffer sentences, overcrowded prisons, and bloated correctional budgets.
Budget deficits and steep drops in tax revenues in most states are forcing the issue, with law-and-order Republican governors and state legislators beginning to overhaul years of policies that were designed to lock up more criminals and put them away for longer periods of time.
“There has been a dramatic shift in the political landscape on this issue in the last few years,’’ said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. “Conservatives have led the charge for more prisons and tougher sentencing, but now they realize they need to be just as tough on criminal justice spending.’’
Most of the plans circulating in at least 22 state capitols would not affect current state prisoners, but only future offenders.
Republican governors and lawmakers pushed for many of the policies that put low-level drug offenders and nonviolent felons behind bars and extended sentences for many convicted criminals. But with the GOP in control of more financially strapped state governments, a growing number of Republican officials favor a review of the sentencing laws that contributed to a fourfold increase in prison costs over two decades.
The total cost of incarcerating state inmates swelled from $12 billion in 1988 to more than $50 billion by 2008.
Newly elected Republican governors in Florida and Georgia are among those pushing sentencing overhauls. Brent Steele, a Republican state senator in Indiana, said lawmakers share the blame for driving up state prison costs. High-profile crimes prompt lawmakers and governors to adopt ever-tougher criminal sentencing, such as three-strikes laws that impose minimum mandatory sentences for those convicted of a third felony, no matter the offense.
“But with that eventually comes the time when we run out of prison space,’’ said Steele, who is sponsoring a criminal justice overhaul in his state. “So what do you do? You concentrate on incarcerating those we’re afraid of and not those we’re just mad at.’’
The fall election put Republicans in control of 25 state legislatures and 29 governor’s offices, and many have pledged not to raise taxes even as they face budget shortfalls. Changing laws to send fewer low-level offenders to state prison or reduce their sentences is a more politically palatable way to save money than cutting spending for schools or health care.
“Conservatives are about limited government, lower taxes, and personal responsibility. And the reforms that we advocate advance those principles,’’ said Marc Levin of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “We’re not saying conservatives were wrong 30 years ago. But the pendulum swung too far.’’
The hallmarks of varying state proposals include ways to reduce sentences for lower-level offenders, to direct some offenders to alternative sentencing programs, to give judges more sentencing discretion, and to smooth the transition for released prisoners.
The push has forged uneasy alliances between law-and-order politicians and activists who have long argued that many laws went too far.
Texas began implementing sentencing changes six years ago. Faced with the prospect of housing 17,000 more inmates by 2012, the state poured money into drug treatment, while putting more drug abusers and petty thieves on probation.
The overhaul slowed the growth of the state’s incarceration rate and saved more than $2 billion the state would have spent on building new prisons to house the inmates, advocates say.
Congress also is wrestling with the issue. US Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, has proposed creating a panel to review the federal system. A similar proposal passed the House last year but never reached a vote in the Senate.