US jails set to empty as states reduce deficits

John Pfaff in The Financial Times, November 14, 2009

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Freedom came early this week for 62 inmates of Illinois state prisons.

The former prisoners became the first of 1,000 low-level, non-violent offen-ders in the state to be let out of prison early over the next few months as Illinois battles a budget deficit that could reach $12bn (€8bn, £7.2bn) next year.

The Illinois department of corrections says monitoring the offenders rather than incarcerating them will save $5m a year. In recent months the state has also taken probation and drug-treatment measures aimed at curbing the growth in inmate numbers.

Illinois' early-release scheme is one of a string of measures that states across the US have taken as they face the twin headaches of a bloated prison population and falling tax revenues. All but two states face budget shortfalls for fiscal 2010, according to a report out this week by the Pew Center on the States.

Some 28 states have planned cuts in prison budgets next year: Kansas opted to cut 22 per cent, Nebraska 18 per cent, Illinois 17 per cent and Georgia 15 per cent - although the use of federal stimulus money has softened the blow.

The result is that the US could see the first fall in prison population since the early 1970s, says John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University in New York who studies prisoner numbers.

States have cut budgets in previous down-cycles - such as in 2001-02 - but the extent of the current measures is larger, as states both try to stem prison admissions and release inmates early.

The measures are being taken in response to a steady growth in states' prison and associated budgets to $52bn last year.

"It costs about $35,000 a year to imprison a person," says Bernard Harcourt, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "We're now beginning to start processing some of the costs associated with some of our penal practices in this country."

More than three-quarters of state spending on prisons goes on staffing costs and a string of states have opted to cut staff and facilities.

Michigan, for example, which has a $2.8bn budget deficit, is closing six prison camps and five prisons, while New York state plans to close three minimumsecurity prison camps and parts of seven more facilities. Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina and Washington are also closing prisons, while Alaska and Colorado have frozen prison-building plans.

While hard decisions may be unavoidable, many are concerned at the possible effects of the cost cuts.

In Michigan, for example, prison officers are on strike, saying closing facilities has led to such overcrowding that prisons are unsafe for their members and for inmates. In other states, communities have complained that prison closures will take away jobs.

There is also a worry about the consequences of letting more prisoners out during an economic downturn.

"Even if people all had sterling résumés, this is a tough time to get work," says Bill Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations, the US's biggest union for active-duty officers.

"The fear is that many will return to a life of crime on the streets, and the citizens who live in metropolitan areas will bear the burden in terms of decreased public safety and increased crime," Mr Johnson says.

However, others argue that reducing the prison population need not result in more crime.

"A dollar spent on police is more effective at reducing crime than spending that dollar on prisons," says Prof Pfaff.

"So a state could reduce its expenditures on prisons, increase its spending on police by less than the cuts in the prison budget and end up with the same crime rate."

Criminal-justice reformers welcome the fact that the budget crisis is prompting a fundamental policy review.

"Right now, we're spending lots of money extremely ineffectively - locking people up in very expensive institutions, letting them out, bringing them back when they violate their parole - and we're having little or no impact on public safety," says Paula Wolff, of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a think-tank.

Cost is also playing into a new debate on one of the US's most controversial practices, the death penalty. New Mexico abolished capital punishment this year, in part because it was too expensive.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the campaigning organisation, estimates that California could save $1bn over five years by repealing the death penalty.

Prof Harcourt says states such as Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida may also be weighing the cost of capital punishment. "It costs on average about $2m for a death-penalty case, so states might have to reassess the policy because of their budgets."