The budget crisis gripping the states, widely described as the worst since World War II, is beginning to force some of the more punitive states to think about massive early releases of nonviolent prisoners, including drug offenders, as a way of trying to make fiscal ends meet. Other states, including Louisiana and Washington, have already moved to cut drug sentences, while California and Arizona embraced similar reforms by popular initiative before the budget crisis began to hit home. In the last 10 days, elected officials in three lock-'em-up states -- Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Virginia -- announced plans for or warned of the need for early releases of nonviolent prisoners. In Oklahoma, law-and-order Gov. Frank Keating (R), a former FBI agent, sent a letter to the state Pardon and Parole board on Monday asking it to quickly consider more than 1,000 inmates for special commutations in order to relieve the state's burgeoning budget deficit.
While all other state agencies have had to take across the board funding cuts, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) has twice asked for -- and received -- emergency spending allocations this fiscal year. Prison spending in Oklahoma has nearly doubled in the last ten years to more than $400 million annually, largely driven by the increase in drug offenders, who now make up a full third of all prisoners in the state (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/264.html#oklahomaprisons).
In his letter to the parole board, Keating warned that revenue shortfalls could force furloughs of prison personnel by the spring unless some prisoners are set free. But, carefully covering his right flank, Keating also vowed to carefully vet the commutations. "It is essential that we not fall into the trap of some past administrations, which sought to reduce prison populations without adequate safeguards to assure that any released inmates pose minimal threats to public safety," Keating wrote.
Keating told the parole board he had asked the DOC to screen commutation candidates according to "specific and narrow criteria." Eligible prisoners must have no convictions for violent crimes, no more than one prior felony conviction, sentences no longer than five years, and not be serving delayed sentences. Also, drug sellers are not included. Combined with the fact that persons convicted of offenses involving methamphetamine, the demon drug du jour, serve sentences averaging over nine years (compared to about two years for other drug offenders) thanks to tougher sentences enacted in 1999, that means a significant number of Oklahoma drug offenders will continue to languish behind bars.
Although releasing the thousand prisoners would save the DOC about $1.5 million, the department is facing a $25 million cut in its budget next fiscal year, so much pressure remains on the department. Keating wrote in his letter that diversion programs for nonviolent offenders will come into effect soon, reducing some of that pressure.
Those prisoners who receive a commutation would be free and clear, without having to serve time on probation or parole. "A sentence commutation means they have served their time," DOC spokesman Jerry Massie told the Daily Oklahoman.
In Kentucky, meanwhile, Gov. Paul Patton (D) announced on November 21 that he would entertain the early release of some prisoners in the Bluegrass State if the state cannot afford to keep them behind bars. Some Republican legislators responded by saying they would rather release nonviolent prisoners than increase taxes, the Lexington Herald Leader reported.
Patton told the newspaper he is caught between a booming prison population and $509 million in projected budget cuts over the next two years. Without more money, early release is a real possibility, he said. "We have our prisons just as full as they can be," Patton said. "And I think they're already stressed. They're already stretched in terms of staffing."
Kentucky houses more than 11,000 prisoners in state and private prisons, with an additional 4,000 serving time in local jails, halfway houses or other locations. Kentucky's prison population has increased by 41% in the past decade, driven mainly by drug prosecutions, the Herald Leader reported. Average sentences have also increased by more than three years in the past decade. The state plans to open an $88 million, 900-bed prison in 2004, but doesn't have the money to hire the staff to run it, Patton said.
Patton said the first class of prisoners to be released would be 3,200 Class D felons held in local jails, and would emphasize nonviolent offenders. The state pays $27.51 per day to local jails to hold state prisoners, the governor's office reported on November 20.
In response, legislators seemed more worried about raising taxes than releasing felons. "I am sure that there are people incarcerated that could be managed in a community setting more efficiently," Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly (R-Springfield) told the Herald Leader. "It's probably something we ought to look at. It's very expensive to warehouse someone who's not a threat to the community."
But there is also grumbling from those whose oxen may be gored. Local jails take in an average of more than $10,000 per prisoner per year from the state. "We built these big local jails at the specific request of the state, to help them house state inmates. They told us, 'You build 'em big, we'll fill 'em,'" said Davies County jailer Harold Taylor, president of the Kentucky Jailers Association.
And in Virginia, home of the modern day cotton-field slave dressed in prison whites, the prisons are full, with no money for more. It's time for Virginia to consider alternatives to prison, state budget officials told lawmakers at a retreat last weekend. While the state is wrestling with the largest revenue decline on record, said Senate Finance Committee staff budget analyst Dan Hickman, the state's parole authorities are sending nonviolent offenders back to prison at record levels for technical violations of their parole, including many for dirty drug tests or failing to keep an appointment. The state's 1994 law banning parole for violent or repeat offenders is also adding to the crisis, Hickman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
As a result, even though the state spent $2 billion building new prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, there is no room at the inn. And there is no money for more prisons; instead, the state faces a $2 billion budget deficit this year.
Legislators need to take a long hard look at early releases for nonviolent offenders, and parole authorities need to find diversion programs for petty parole violators, Hickman said. Parolees who are able to work contribute a million dollars a year to the prison budget by paying a portion of their own incarceration costs, he said. If parolees continue to be re-incarcerated at a high rate, that means more prisons will be needed. "And right now, there are no additional funds to expand anything," Hickman said.
But even trying to save money costs money, Hickman said. More diversion programs will have to be funded, he said. "You will need additional funding for that and you will need to encourage judges to make greater use of these alternatives," Hickman said.