County and state governments just don't have the funds required to be as "tough on crime" as they used to be.
The issue is particularly relevant in California because of the massive size of that state's inmate population and the politically powerful corrections officials charged with supervising incarcerated offenders.
But across the nation, the deteriorating and global financial crisis is forcing dramatic changes in the hard-line, punishment-based philosophy that has dominated the USA's criminal justice system.
Some 31 states are reporting budget gaps that the National Governor's Association says added up to $30 billion last year. As a result, criminal justice officials and lawmakers are proposing and enacting cost-cutting changes across the public safety spectrum.
The potential risks of pursuing such changes as lighter sentences or supervised parole for non-violent drug offenders is the subject of a growing and emotional debate. Some analysts say the severity and amount of sentences handed down in U.S. courts has reached unsustainable levels and the philosophical shift is long overdue. Police and prosecutors say it could undermine public safety.
Ryan King of The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, says the financial crisis has created enough "political cover" to fuel a new look at the realities of incarcerating more than 2 million people and supervising 5 million others on probation and parole.
It's this kind of political cover that recently led the State Attorney General of Arizona to suggest that policy makers look at decriminalizing marijuana to cut into the profit margin of Mexican drug cartels. "It's clear that locking up hundreds of thousands of people does not guarantee public safety," he told USA Today in a recent interview.
On the other hand, Joshua Marquis, a past vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, does agree that the economy is prompting an overhaul of justice policy, but reaches a very different conclusion about its impact on public safety. "State after state after state appears to be waiting for the opportunity to wind back some of the most intelligent sentencing policy we have," Marquis told reporters. "If we do this, we will pay a price. No question."
But state and county legislators say they are already paying a price for "tough on crime" practices that have bled budgets dry.
In Kansas recently, officials closed two detention facilities to save about $3.5 million. A third was also closed according to Roger Werholtz, chief of the state prison system. A California panel of federal judges recommended last month that the cash-strapped state release up to 57,000 non-violent inmates from the overcrowded system to help save as much as $800 million. And Kentucky officials last year allowed for the early release of non-violent offenders up to six months before their sentences end to serve the balance of their time at home.
In addition, New Mexico and Colorado are among seven states where some lawmakers are calling for an end to the death penalty, arguing capital cases have become too costly to prosecute.
The fact of the matter is that in financial times like these, officials have to take a hard look at "bang for the buck" scenarios and determine where money can be saved - even if that means cutting politically popular laws like "three strikes" legislation. Things are so tough in terms of budgets that some of the folks advocating lighter sentences and early parole are not exactly the usual suspects.
Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal admits he isn't the "logical guy" to lead the charge for "anything that could be considered soft on crime." After all, his 25 years in the state Legislature have been marked by high-profile efforts to get longer sentences for sex offenders, backing tougher sanctions for drug dealers, and his unwavering support for the death penalty.
"We're kind of a hang-'em-high state," O'Neal told USA Today. But in 2007 while prison construction costs soared and state prisons reached near capacity, O'Neal changed course. He helped push through a measure calling for a 20 percent reduction in probationers sent to prison for violating conditions of their release.
He said that despite fear that the new policy could allow offenders to commit other crimes, he felt spiraling costs demanded a new approach to punishing criminals.
The new law gives local probation departments broader authority to decide whether technical violations of release, such as missed meetings with probation officers or failed drug tests, should result in prison. Up to two-thirds of all new prison admissions each year are offenders who violated terms of their release in Kansas.
A report out this month by the Pew Center on the States, a public policy research group, found costly prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect an increase in crime or the nation's population.
Margaret Colgate Love, director of the American Bar Association's Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions, says the public "is very ready to support crime-control strategies aimed at helping people." But she believes in order for this to happen, politicians will have to forgo the traditional "soft on crime" attacks on opponents.
"Every time we say something or someone is soft on crime, we perpetuate a dysfunctional response to crime control," Colgate Love told USA Today.
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