Nationwide, corrections spending ranks fourth in eating up state budget dollars, trailing only health care, education, and transportation. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, five states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont -- spend more on prisons they than do on schools.
The US currently spends about $68 billion a year on corrections, mostly at the state level. Even at a time when people are talking about trillion dollar bail-outs, that's a lot of money. And with states from California to the Carolinas facing severe budget squeezes, even "law and order" legislators and executive branch officials are eyeing their expensive state prison systems in an increasingly desperate search to cut costs.
"If you look at the amount of money spent on corrections in the states, it's an enormous amount," said Lawanda Johnson of the Justice Policy Institute. "If they could reduce prison spending, that would definitely have an impact on their state budgets. Now, a few states are starting to look at their jail and prison populations," she said.
Alabama: The state Department of Corrections is facing a 20% budget cut in 2009. Alabama Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen is telling legislators he will try to "dampen down" the number of new inmates by working on sentencing reform, community corrections, new pardon and parole rules, and a supervised reentry program. The number of Alabama prisoners jumped from nearly 28,000 in March 2006 to more than 30,000 in December 2008, an increase Allen said was caused in part because the legislature had created 67 new felony crimes since 2001.
California: With a prison population of more than 170,000 and the state facing budget deficits of gargantuan proportions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has suggested eliminating parole time for all non-serious, nonviolent, and non-sex offenders. His plan would cut the parole population by 65,000 people, more than half the 123,000 currently on parole. It would also reduce by tens of thousands the number of people behind bars in the Golden State by increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation. That move could cut the prison population by 15,000 by June 2010. Schwarzenegger's proposal is opposed by -- you guessed it -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for which mass imprisonment is a job security issue.
Colorado: Gov. Bill Ritter (D) has proposed extensive cuts in the state corrections system, including closing two state prisons, delay the construction or expansion of two other prisons, and selling a department-owned 1,000-acre ranch. Those cuts would eliminate at least 71 jobs and save $13.6 million in the coming fiscal year.
Kentucky: Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and state legislators last year granted early release to some 1,800 prisoners, including some violent offenders, in a bid to take a bite out of the state's $1 billion budget deficit. Although Beshear and the legislature have protected the Corrections Department from budget cuts afflicting nearly all other state agencies and programs, the state's dire financial straits are making passage of a treatment-not-jail bill for drug offenders more likely this year. That could save the state $1.47 million.
Michigan: Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) will propose keeping prison spending near the $2 billion mark in 2010, 57% higher than a decade ago, but legislators are about to chew on proposals for reform from the Council of State Governments Justice Center to cut the number of state prison inmates by 5,000. That would save about $262 million by 2015, far short of the $500 million annual savings now being called for by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, among others. The Justice Center proposals include cutting the average time above the minimum sentences inmates serve from 27% to 20%. Some 12,000 inmates have already served more than their minimum sentences. Deputy Corrections Director Dennis Schrantz said those proposals were only the beginning, noting that the state had closed nine prisons since 2003 and will close three more this year.
Mississippi: Faced with an emergency $6.5 million (2%) budget cut for the current fiscal year, the state Department of Corrections is moving to reduce the number of inmates in county and regional jails and private prisons. The state pays counties $20 per inmate per day to house them and pays private prison companies at least $31.70 per inmate per day. The state will remove 300 inmates from county jails and 50 from private prisons. Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also has sent a list of 2,900 nonviolent inmates to the parole board for possible early release. The department may also grant early release to prisoners with severe medical problems, allowing the state to cut costs by not having to provide medical care for them.
New York: With a $15 billion budget deficit and a Department of Correctional Services eating up $2.5 billion a year -- more than any other state agency -- Gov. David Paterson (D) is seeking to release 1,600 offenders early and reform or repeal the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The prison budget has continued to increase despite a whopping 35% drop in crime in the last decade and a prison population at the lowest levels since the 1980s. Now Correctional Services Director Brian Fischer wants to close prison camps and correctional annexes sitting empty with a thousand beds, saving the state $100 million and cutting the 31,000 corrections department employees by about 1,400 through attrition. It's a start.
South Carolina: After running in the red for the last two years, the state's prison director, Jon Ozmint, told legislators he needed $36 million for the current fiscal year, leaving the solons with three choices: cut spending for health, education, or other services; finance corrections through the reserve, or close prisons. Legislators last year rejected Ozmint's suggestion that they save money by releasing prisoners early and closing prisons. This year, Ozmint is suggesting that the state reduce the requirement that serious felons serve 85% of their sentence to 70%. The prison crisis in South Carolina has prompted the normally pro-prison Charleston Post & Courier to call for "alternative sentencing that could keep nonviolent offenders out of prison" and "revising mandatory minimum sentences."
Virginia: Telling legislators "we want to lock up people we're afraid of and not ones we're mad at," Virginia corrections director Gene Johnson said this week Gov. Tim Kaine (D) wants to release some nonviolent offenders 90 days early to save the state $5 million a year. Nearly 1,200 inmates would qualify for early release, he said. Virginia has already closed five prisons employing 702 people, and may resort to limited lay-offs, Johnson told legislators.
This is by no means a list of all the states grappling with prison spending in the current crisis. Correctional costs are on the agenda at statehouses across the country, but as the list above suggests, the economic squeeze is providing openings for reform.
"In the handful of states that have already opened legislative sessions this year, the corrections budget is frequently raised in budget conversations," said Ryan King, an analyst for The Sentencing Project. "A number of governors have raised the issue. It will definitely be on the table. With the recession really taking hold this year, it will be a major, major issue," he said.
"With each passing year, there is a little greater acknowledgement that we are in a position where states are spending far too much money to incarcerate and can't build their way out of it, but the prison population is still increasing each year," said King. "If we want to talk about a sustainable reduction in the prison population, we need to revisit who is going and for how long, as well as a critical evaluation of sentencing laws, repealing mandatory minimums, and expanding parole eligibility. Those are the big steps that need to be taken."
There is still resistance to reform, King said, but things are changing. "There is now much broader consideration of amending parole and probation policies, along with diversion of drug offenders," he said. "Those are probably the two most widely achieved reforms in the last few years. We will probably see more of that, but if we're going to move this from diverting a few thousand people to really addressing the 1.5 million in prison, we are going to have to start asking whether people belong in prison for decades, whether life without parole is really necessary. The real engines of growth for the prison population are admissions and sentence lengths, and a lot of policymakers are still uncomfortable having that conversation."
After decades of seemingly endless sentence increases and prison-building, perhaps the wheel is beginning to turn. Politicians immune to "bleeding heart" pleas for humanity are not immune to pocket-book issues. But while change is starting to come, the US remains a long way from losing its crown as the world's leading jailer.