As I wrote yesterday, states from California to New York are mitigating effects of the crisis by closing prisons and experimenting with alternative corrections programs. Though the principal motivation – financial – implies that this is a patchwork remedy for a temporary ill, early signs of a shift in attitude predate the present crisis.

Some policies seemingly compelled by a temporary economic situation were, in fact, merely expedited, and the boost given them by fiscal necessity may prove a pivotal factor in their long-term institutionalization.

Michigan is one example. Its plan to close eight prisons this year continues a trend that began in 2005, with 11 prison and work-camp closings in the interim:

Where did all the work-camp inmates go? They’re on parole, part of a sea change in corrections philosophy. With 21,000 parolees, a record-high number, Michigan is four years into a reform centered on community supervision rather than incarceration. The state says it’s working.

Despite push-back from corrections officers, their unions, and state legislators – including a warning from a union leader that "the public better lock their doors" – the program is earning praise. It’s also contributing to the right sort of police statistics; crime is down, the recidivism rate is down, and it’s saving the state between $25 and $30 million a year.

Of course a spike in crime, whether real or media-contrived, can quickly reverse or halt this program. Tough economic conditions plus large numbers of parolees might prove the perfect recipe for such a spike.

Also arguing against the program’s staying power is the unhappy fact that Michigan’s economy has been in decline for quite some time, and the change in philosophy may find the whole of its explanation in ledger books, not in the hearts and minds of state legislators.

Nevertheless, there is reason to be optimistic. The program is working and, if the results still trend towards the positive, those who’d entrench or expand our prison industrial complex will have yet fewer grounds on which to make their argument. The politicians, for their part, will be happy to find new uses for the money saved.

Lance Steagall

Lance Steagall