States impose clashing cuts to prison spending
Monday, April 4, 2011
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Desperate to save money, many states are pushing to reduce the number of people in prison while also cutting the services meant to keep them from committing new crimes, including probation monitoring, mental health care and drug counseling.
Those clashing policies — more offenders out, less supervision at home — raise the possibility that states could save now but pay more in the long run, both in money and crime.
“Four years from now, I think you’ll probably see a spike in incarceration rates,” said Justin Jones, director of the Department of Corrections in Oklahoma, one of the states planning to reduce its prison population.
Oklahoma intends to lighten its inmate burden through greater use of parole, community sentencing and electronic monitoring. At the same time, the state has slashed treatment and job training for prisoners and is looking at cuts to statewide mental health programs, the same ones that deal with prisoners after their release.
Texas has spent years trying to get low-level offenders out of prison and keep them out, managing to hold the prison population flat when it was projected to rise by 17,000. Now, amid a $27 billion budget crisis, the state may cut in-prison drug treatment nearly in half and eliminate money to monitor people on probation for misdemeanors.
California, still struggling to close a massive deficit, may cut its prison population by 38,000 over the next three years, or about 23 percent. Also being cut: drug counseling, mental health care and welfare-to-work programs that handle offenders.
The measures reflect the impact of the long recession, during which states have made round after round of cuts to address falling tax revenues. The economies still available now may not always be logical, just unavoidable. Money for criminal justice balances against jobs of teachers and services for those with disabilities.
“Will there be some heartburn along the way? I’m sure there will be,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Earl Sears, a Republican. “But all state agencies are having to deal with these cuts.”
Criminal justice experts agonize about the timing. After two decades of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” thinking, states were starting to adopt new policies. The most dangerous criminals would be kept behind bars while others would be handled in ways designed to keep them from returning to prison.
“We’re finally to the point that we know what works and we know what doesn’t work, and we hit it just about the same time a recession hit,” said Jones, the Oklahoma corrections director. The change is now in jeopardy.
Kansas is one example of a state making cuts in conflict with each other.
Kansas made a major shift in 2007 toward reducing the prison population and handling more ex-offenders in the community. The strategy seemed to pay off. The number of people successfully finishing probation or parole rose, from 46 percent in 2006 to 61 percent in 2008. The prison population, expected to rise 20 percent over the next eight years, dropped by 6 percent.
Now, as budget cuts begin, successful paroles are dropping and the number of prisoners has started climbing again.
Kansas plans to cut employees who oversee parole and re-entry programs and may close some prison camps. It is also spending less to help communities monitor high-risk offenders. And nine of the state’s 27 community mental health centers, where many offenders are treated, may have to close.
That worries Marilyn Cook, head of the Comcare mental health service in Wichita, the state’s largest city. Most of the offenders imprisoned from Wichita wind up back in Wichita. If they aren’t pushed to change, she said, they wind up falling into old ways.
To keep that from happening, authorities set up special courts to handle people with addictions and mental illness. More than 900 people went through Comcare’s programs for sobriety, mental health and other services in 2010. The number of inmates in the county jail with mental health problems dropped to 47 percent, down from 62 percent in 2005.
But she said state budget cuts endanger all of that. Comcare got over $6 million from the state to serve the poor and uninsured in 2005, Cook said. That has now dwindled to about $2 million. If the proposed budget cuts go through, it would drop to $800,000 and programs would be slashed.
“Eventually these individuals are going to be served somewhere. They’re going to go to long-term care in state hospitals, in jails and in prison,” Cook said.
John Spence says the community treatment he got for mental illness has helped him stay out of jail.
Spence, 48, threatened a police officer in Kansas during a psychotic episode. He had served an 18-month prison sentence in Texas for a similar offense. This time, however, Spence got help with his prescriptions and finding a place to live. He’s been on his own for a year now.
Without help in the community, Spence said, people like him “end up in jail, probably, and the state will still end up paying. I just don’t want to see people go through what I had to go through.”
The officials who must piece together state budgets say they have little choice. Money is so tight that they must cut everywhere.
The number of people in U.S. prisons has exploded — from 424,000 in 1983 to 1.5 million in 2008, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. The cost of keeping those people behind bars climbed 674 percent, to $52 billion.
Most of the people sent to prison were low-level drug offenders or people who had broken rules while on probation or parole.
Many people behind bars also suffer from mental illness. A 2005 Justice Department study found that more than half of prison and jail inmates had symptoms of serious mental illnesses.
Over the past few years, states have taken a closer look at more efficient ways of dealing with them.
Some states have set up special facilities — less expensive than prison — for people who violate parole and probation. They’ve also put money into helping people find housing, get jobs and buy medicine after leaving prison.
Researchers say these efforts have paid off.
A study of Baltimore courts that handle drug cases and emphasize treatment found that they save up to $1.46 for every $1 they cost and significantly reduce repeat offenses. Another study, in Washington state, found treatment cut repeat offenses up to 20 percent.
About 600,000 Americans are released from prison every year — 50,000 a month, according to the Association of State Correctional Administrators. More than half of them will be back in prison within three years, national statistics suggest.
Several experts warned that as states push to trim their prison populations, they risk repeating the mistakes of a generation ago, when people with mental illnesses were rapidly moved out of institutions and into the community. Many wound up on the streets or in jail.
“Now some of our jails are the largest mental health providers in the country,” said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association.
Probation and parole officers monitor people and help keep them from winding up back in jail again, said Shelly Williams, director of Riley County Community Corrections in Kansas. But budget cuts will mean fewer officers to watch more offenders. “It’s been exciting to be part of this change,” she said. “It’s scary to think we aren’t going to be able to maintain it.”
Judges in Nevada have spoken out against plans to eliminate money for two special courts that deal with the mentally ill. “You either are going to pay less now, or more later,” Clark County Judge Jackie Glass testified at a legislative hearing.
Herbert Steptoe, 50 a former inmate and cocaine abuser who was placed in a Texas treatment program, said people like him wind up back in prison without help in the community. “There are individuals I know right now that are going to need that program. They’ll have nowhere to turn,” Steptoe said. “Just serving time does not fix an individual.”