Two studies released this week suggest that the nation's prison binge may have run its course. In separate reports, the Sentencing Project and the Justice Policy Institute concluded that the downturn in crime rates and the downturn in the economy are now being reflected in an increased willingness by policymakers to close prisons, slash mandatory minimum sentences, and make drug treatment instead of prison an option for drug offenders.

The Justice Policy Institute report, authored by institute head Vince Schiraldi and Judith Greene, found that some states are beginning to respond to fiscal crisis by closing prisons and shrinking correctional systems and that public support is increasing for non-prison sentencing options for nonviolent offenders. The prison boom of the 1990s was largely fueled by nonviolent offenders, including hundreds of thousands of drug offenders, the study said. Nonviolent offenders were responsible for 77% of the increase in the prison population in the 1990s, with more than 1.2 million of them behind bars today, the study reported.

"In state after state, we found that politicians of both parties were proposing prudent cuts to prison populations and budgets," said Greene. "The combination of the current fiscal crisis and increasing public support for reducing the use of incarceration has created a national trend in states moving toward a more balanced response to crime."

The JPI report noted that Republican governors in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Florida have decided to close prisons. Other states, including Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and Louisiana, have reduced or taken steps to reduce their prison populations. And legislation to reduce sentences is under consideration in Washington State, Kansas, New York, and Oregon.

"Rather than slashing school budgets and closing hospitals, some states are finding ways to cut spending on corrections, reducing the number of people imprisoned, without compromising public safety," said Schiraldi in a press release announcing the study. "In a time of declining prison populations and falling crime rates, this report recommends many new ways to reign in mushrooming state correctional populations and costs."

Citing polling data from California, Pennsylvania and nationwide, Schiraldi and Greene argue that the public is increasingly supportive of alternative sentencing approaches and cutting prison budgets, which, they suggest "present state policymakers with a unique opportunity to cut spending on corrections this year."

The JPI study recommended four options for sentencing reform:

The Sentencing Project report, authored by Ryan King and Sentencing Project Assistant Director Marc Mauer, covers much of the same ground as the JPI report, with in-depth analyses of sentencing reforms across the country, as well as a review of the changing political climate.

According to the Sentencing Project, a number of factors have contributed to the emerging sea change in sentencing policy. "The declining crime rate for most of the 1990s helped to reduce public fear and concern on this issue," wrote Mauer and King. "New programs and practitioner initiatives, such as drug courts, gained public acceptance as viable alternative methods for dealing with crime. And growing public and policymaker awareness of the limits of incarceration," expressed with growing concern about the hundreds of thousands of prisoners being released each year without treatment or training, has also shifted the political winds.

The declining crime rate "is starting to sink in with people," said Mauer. "It's changed the whole emotional, political discussion about crime. It doesn't have the same resonance as a campaign issue that it might have had 10 years ago when crime rates were rising."

The Justice Policy Institute Study, "Cutting Correctly: New Prison Policies for Times of Fiscal Crisis," is available at online. The Sentencing Project study, "State Sentencing and Corrections Policy in an Era of Fiscal Restraint," is available at online.)

-- END --
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Issue #223, 2/8/02 Editorial: Hate Mongering | DEA Backs Off a Bit on Hemp Foods, Extends "Grace Period" Before Ban for 40 Days | The Bush 2003 Drug Budget: More of the Same, More for Colombia, More for the DEA | DRCNet Interview: Noam Chomsky | Bush Administration Seeks to Widen Colombian Intervention as Human Rights Groups Denounce Abuses | Federal Judge Throws Out Glow Stick, Pacifier Ban in New Orleans Rave Case | Cincinnati Again Asks Federal Courts to Revive Drug Exclusion Zone | Backlash Emerges as Texas Drug Task Forces Run Amok | Seismic Shift in Sentencing Policies Underway: Declining Crime Rates, Budget Woes Cited | Media Scan: Alan Bock, Arianna Huffington, Foreign Policy in Focus, ABC News on Hemp Foods | Alerts: HEA Drug Provision, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar
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