Lawmakers across the country are debating plans to reverse decades of tough-on-crime policies by granting early release to criminals as a way for cash-strapped states to try to close budget gaps.
From California to Kentucky, officials are considering releasing tens of thousands of convicts, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses,
who would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior.
Officials acknowledge that the idea carries risks, but say they have no choice because of huge budget gaps brought on by the slumping economy.
"If we don't find a way to better manage the population at the state prison, we will be forced to spend money to expand the state's prison system - money we don't have," said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri.
At least eight states are considering freeing inmates or sending some to rehabilitation programs instead of prison. If adopted, the early release
programs could save an estimated $450 million in California and Kentucky alone. Kentucky spends more than $18,600 to house one inmate for a year, or roughly $51 a day. In California, each inmate costs an average of $46,104 to incarcerate.
"It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now."
A Rhode Island proposal would allow inmates to deduct up to 12 days from their sentence for every month they follow rules and work in prison. A plan in Mississippi would offer early parole for people convicted of selling marijuana or prescription drugs. New Jersey, South Carolina and Vermont are considering funneling drug-addicted offenders into treatment, which is cheaper than prison.
In California, where lawmakers have taken steps to cut a $16 billion budget deficit in half by summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed saving $400 million by releasing more than 22,000 inmates who had less than 20 months remaining on their sentences. Violent and sex offenders would not be eligible
Proposals to free prisoners are still met with opposition, particularly from law enforcement officials who fear that a flood of released felons could
return to their communities, and from victims groups that worry that justice is being sacrificed for budgetary concerns.
But prisons "are one of the most expensive parts of the criminal-justice system," said Alison Lawrence, who studies corrections policy for the
National Conference of State Legislatures. "That's where they look to first to cut down some of those costs."
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