Strapped for cash, states set some felons free

Michigan and others scale back mandatory sentences, and look for prison alternatives to save money.

As a result of the nation's budget crunch, Karen Shook could be handed a "get out of jail free" card very soon.

The suburban mother of three has served nine years of a 20- to 40-year sentence for conspiracy to sell cocaine under Michigan's mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. Last month, Gov. John Engler (R) signed a bill that repeals them and hands much discretion back to judges. The new law, which goes into effect in March, is retroactive. As a result, Ms. Shook will come up for parole 10 years earlier than expected.

"She was an addict that police said was 'easy mark' who introduced an undercover officer to a supplier," says Laurie Quick, her sister. "She did wrong, no question, but she should have gotten treatment."

As states cope with the worst fiscal crisis since World War II, the "get tough on crime" policies that tripled the nation's prison population - and quintupled spending on corrections - over the past quarter century are coming under increasing scrutiny. During 2000 alone, states spent more than $40 billion on prisons, or $1 out of every $14 general-fund dollars, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington.

From Michigan to Ohio to North Carolina, governors and lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce criminal-justice budgets by cutting down on the number of inmates. Drug laws, parole policies, and truth-in-sentencing requirements are all on the table. And in many states, like Michigan, it's conservative lawmakers who've taken on the mantle of reform.

Focus on nonviolent offenders

The process is speeding up a reform movement started by a small number of grass-roots groups a decade ago, which has shifted public opinion in favor of alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. It now promises to revamp the way the nation deals with criminals by offering more nonviolent offenders a range of alternatives, from drug treatment to community service.

"We created a monster, thinking we could lock up all of those people for long periods of time," says Reginald Wilkinson, director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and past president of the American Correction Association. "We've gotten a a wake-up call for us to look at how to better manage the billions of dollars that are being dispersed to prison agencies."

Of state funds spent on prisons in 2000, more than half - $24 billion - went to imprison nonviolent offenders. Many of them, like Ms. Shook, were involved with illegal drugs and got caught up with the tough mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that were enacted first in New York in 1973. They were designed to get drug kingpins off the street, but studies show they more often ended up giving low-level and first-time offenders long prison sentences.

From 1980 to 1997, the number of imprisoned drug offenders increased more than 10 times in the US, while the number of violent offenders doubled.

Mike Kowall, a conservative Michigan lawmaker, was a strong advocate of the mandatory minimum laws when they were first instituted. But last year, he ushered the reform bill to the governor's desk.

"Make no mistake about it, I have no problem with putting people in jail. I consider myself to the right of Attila the Hun," says Mr. Kowall, who was chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. "This just gets back to common-sense approaches to crime rather than just locking them up and throwing away the key."

It was initially the financial cost of the mandatory minimums that caught Kowall's attention. But the more he heard the stories of people like Karen Shook, who was a constituent, the more he became concerned about the human toll the policies were taking. "Her story really made me aware of the severity of the problem," he says.

Shook is one of an estimated 1,200 prisoners who will be directly affected by the reforms, saving the state millions of dollars over the next decade. Another 3,000 people on lifetime parole will be eligible to be released. That's estimated to save the state $5.7 million in the first year alone.

Ohio is one of a handful states that have already instituted such sentencing and parole guideline reforms. As a result, Ohio has reduced its prison population by more than 4,000 inmates over the past four years. That's allowed it to close one prison and shut down housing units in four others.

Mr. Wilkinson says Ohio also puts a high priority on rehabilitation by ensuring prisoner access to education, drug treatment, and vocational training. "We do have some control over the persons that we supervise, and we can help turn their lives around," he says.

Another state's reforms

North Carolina has also been ahead of the national curve, instituting sentencing guidelines in the mid-'90s that encouraged both long prison terms for violent repeat offenders and community-based sanctions for nonviolent first-time criminals. In 1994, when the changes were first implemented, 42 percent of people arrested were imprisoned. That dropped down to 29 percent.

"At a time that others' were going up, ours was going down, markedly," says Thomas Ross, a former judge who was chairman of the Sentencing Commission that overhauled the state's guidelines.

The commission also created a computer model that was able to predict the impact that any new law would have on the prison population. "Anytime a bill was introduced, we could tell them how much it was going to cost, and that changed the whole debate around crime and punishment by doing away with a lot of demagoguery," he says.

Michigan's Kowall also believes the fundamental debate has shifted from being tough on crime to being smart on crime.

"I tell my colleagues throughout the US: 'Don't be afraid of taking on these issues for fear of being chastised as soft on crime,' " he says. "It never even came up, and I was in a heated primary. We have to analyze what we're doing and then proceed from there."

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