One of the silver linings in this economic crisis: a long-overdue reevaluation of incarceration and corrections-programs in the US is taking place.

In Michigan:

"Three state prisons and five prison camps will be closed to save $120 million as budget-conscious Michigan moves toward incarcerating its lowest number of inmates in a decade, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration said Friday.

The Democratic governor wants to reduce the prison population of 47,550 to below 45,000 by Oct. 1, the lowest head count since 1999."

In Georgia:

A stunning 25% of Harris County’s annual $1.5 billion budget goes to law enforcement, with more than $750,000 a day spent on detainees. A shortage of guards means the jail shells out $35 million a year on overtime; some guards are topping out at $100,000 a year in total pay.

In New York:

the agreement being finalized would grant judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment in all but the most serious felony drug offenses….reform could save money over time because sending offenders to treatment is less expensive than spending $45,000 a year to lock them up, the Times reports. And the deal would also allow an unspecified number of drug offenders who are currently in prison to apply to have their sentences commuted.

In Maryland:

Maryland could save millions of dollars by releasing onto parole many low risk individuals – like some of the oldest members of the prison population – and by expanding parole eligibility and improving supervision, according to a report released today by the Justice Policy Institute. The report, The Release Valve: Parole in Maryland, notes that in 2007 the state spent approximately $1,422 per person on parole or probation, and $33,310 per person incarcerated. Just by paroling an additional 100 people, the report concludes, the state could potentially save approximately $3 million over the course of one year while maintaining public safety.

In California:

Under a new Corrections Department policy, over-crowded state prisons and a daunting budget deficit could mean less prison time for low-level parolees who are arrested for technical violations, a move critics call "early release."

In Illinois:

Hundreds of inmates could be released from Illinois prisons in the coming months as part of a budget-cutting tactic unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Faced with a massive state deficit and a lingering budget impasse with lawmakers, Quinn announced the layoffs of 1,000 workers from prisons across the state. The first 500 of those will take effect Sept. 30 and target workers at prisons in East Moline, Lincoln, Logan, Decatur, Vandalia and Vienna.

Because there would be fewer workers at those minimum-security facilities, the agency is reviewing which inmates might qualify for early release.

While these efforts at prison reform are spurred by economic concerns, some comments from AG Eric Holder hint at a more fundamental, more encouraging re-appraisal of our current approach:

To begin with, high rates of incarceration have tremendous social cost,” he said. “And, of course, there also is the matter of simple dollars and cents, and the principle of diminishing marginal returns. Every state in the union is trying to trim budgets. States and localities are laying off teachers and canceling sanitation department shifts, but in almost all cases, spending on prisons continues to increase. Not only is this unsustainable economically, but it is also not proving to be effective at fighting crime. For while prison building and prison spending continue to increase, public safety is not improving. Since 2003, spending on incarceration has continued to rise, but crime rates have flattened. Indeed, crime rates appear to have reached a plateau, and no longer respond to increases in incarceration.”

Sustainable prison reform will only come through a recognition that our current approach is not working. It’s encouraging, then, to hear Holder acknowledge that our approach to fighting crime is counterproductive. He may have stopped short of addressing the issue from a moral standpoint, but as this article from bobschacht illustrates, he seems to be man with a moral compass to his work. His needle may not always match that of the progressive community, but simply possessing one is already an upgrade from last year’s model.

Lance Steagall

Lance Steagall