An opportunity in prison budget cuts

States can release many nonviolent inmates safely and find other ways to reduce costs.

Across America, states are taking a hacksaw to prison budgets – causing an uproar amid concerns about public safety and job losses.

It's the recession that's forcing their hand. Done right, though, the cuts can lead to needed prison reform, without endangering the public.

The US ranks as the prison capital of the world. In 2008, more than 2.3 million men and women (or 1 in 100 adults) sat in prisons or jails. This dubious distinction comes from a near tripling of the inmate population over the past two decades – and a similar rise in state spending on corrections.

California, which has the nation's largest prison system, is housing inmates at nearly twice its capacity – and spending more on them than on its public university system.

In August, a panel of federal judges ordered California to significantly reduce its prison population. Also last month, rioting inmates virtually destroyed a prison in Chino. The fight pitted Latinos against African-Americans. But the prison was also notoriously overcrowded.

There's only one way to achieve significant savings: Reduce the number of inmates. That's not as scary as it sounds. The Pew Center on the States finds that many states have reached a "tipping point" where additional jailing will have little if any effect in reducing crime.

It pays to imprison the most prolific and violent offenders, Pew reported in a March study. But research shows that jailing lower-level and less frequent lawbreakers – such as drug and property offenders – can cost more than it's worth in crime prevention.

Some states are trying to keep low-risk, nonviolent offenders from entering prison by opting for drug or alcohol treatment instead of jail time. Some are reexamining parole – granting it, for one thing, and restructuring it to focus on high-risk parolees. They're reducing technical violations that return people to jail.

The California legislature just passed a law to overhaul parole and reduce the prison population. The law focuses officers' attention on high-risk parolees – though the changes still fall far short of the reductions demanded by the federal judges. (The panel required the changes because the state's healthcare for inmates was so inadequate that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.)

Rehabilitation, vocational training, and parole reform can stop the prison revolving door without setting off alarm bells with the public. A much tougher sell is sentencing reform.

Voters approve of mandatory sentencing and three-strikes laws. Yet this cookie-cutter approach removes a judge's discretion from a case and has produced a graying inmate population with mounting health costs (the very problem California faces).

The states are imprisoned by their prison budgets. Economic necessity can unloose their chains with a different way of doing things.

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