Correctional Budget Cuts and Potential Solutions

By Christopher Zoukis

With fiscal uncertainty rampant and budget cuts looming state law makers are finally seeing the light when it comes to correction's budgets. This light comes in the numbers of 7% and $50 billion. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, states spend 7% of their discretionary budgets, $50 billion a year, on corrections. This is second only to health care and education.  Michigan's Budget / Image courtesy huffingtonpost.com

States have taken these numbers to heart with extensive mid-year correctional budget cuts in 2011-2012. A total of 31 states made cuts to the tune of $805.9 million. Colorado led the pack with $112.5 million in cuts while South Dakota lagged behind with only $0.7 million in cuts. Surprisingly enough, California, with all of their fiscal issues, didn't make any cuts.

The move to reduce correction's budgets is focused on reducing both the number of prisoners incarcerated and the number of prisons. Texas, for example, is proposing a drastic shift in their correction's ideology. They were planning on building more prisons to compensate for probation revocations. But now they are considering lightening sentences for probation violations. Texas is basing this new correction's philosophy upon what others have called "shock probation." The idea is to overwhelm the probationer with the concept of how bad life can be if they were to go to prison. This is the same concept used by the scared straight programs. If Texas was to follow through with this proposal, costs would be around $241 million for the program, not the $540 million it would cost to build three new prisons, according to State House member Jerry Madden. Texas was one of the 31 states to make mid-year cuts. They cut $20 million from their correction's budget.

Perhaps Arizona is the best recent example of what is possible with a little common sense. Since 2008, Arizona has cut their prison population by 2,100. They did so by altering the way probation and parole are handled. This is a drastic change from Arizona's projected 50% prison population increase by 2018. This increase would have cost Arizona an additional $2 billion to build and operate new prisons alone. Instead, last year Arizona made mid-year cuts of $9.5 million from their correction's budget.

New York, which made the second largest mid-year budget cuts of $70 million, has also seen the light. When referring to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's introduced budget, Eric Kriss, the governor's budget division spokesman, said that more than $100 million could be saved and at least 3,500 beds could be cut in 2013.

These budget cuts, while fiscally motivated, are backed by hard fact. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the violent-crime rate dropped 6% from 2008 to 2009 and 41% from 1990 to 2008. It is precisely these numbers which have influenced law makers to do what they can to not incarcerate non-violent offenders; low-level drug offenders in particular. States have implemented inventive programs where a parolee or a probationer is offered treatment instead of incarceration for failing drug tests. This not only saves correction's budgets, but has the real potential of helping addicted supervisees break their drug habit. A worthwhile cause in anyone's book considering both the recidivism rate of drug offenders and the emotional toll drug abuse has on the individual and the community.

But not all are pleased with the idea of lowering prison populations. According to Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, "Those officials have forgotten that it is the threshold responsibility of an elected official to provide for the safety of the citizens he or she represents." Mr. Pasco further went on to state, "Stay tuned. When you let all of these criminals out of jail, the crime rate is going to go up again." Clearly Mr. Pasco's comments are not only inflammatory toward law makers and prisoners, but they also side-step the real issue. No one is saying that we should open the prison gates and let everyone out. What they are saying is that with a well thought-out plan we can rehabilitate prisoners so that when they are released, and early release should be an option, that they pose no, or minimal, risk to society.

The short answer is to filter out those non-violent offenders who shouldn't be in prison in the first place. They should go through a diversion program such as treatment or probation. This will certainly lower the prison population while still protecting society. The longer answer is that a fundamental change needs to be made to correctional ideology. The focus needs to be shifted from warehousing to rehabilitation. Some safety concerns are well-founded. There are a number of people in prison who cannot act right or follow the law. They are a danger to not only the general public, but a danger to the prison population. The answer is to institute systematic education opportunities. If we continue to treat prisoners like caged animals then they will come out snarling like wild beasts. On the other hand, if we offer educational opportunities, with meaningful incentives for completion, then we won't be releasing animals, but college students; an educated work force that will support and benefit society, not terrorize it and return to prison.

According to Marshall Clement, the co-author of a report issued by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, "The question is how to do it [reduce correction's budgets] the right way and increase public safety at the same time." The answer is to sow what we want to reap. If we want higher correction's budgets and recidivism then we change nothing. The upward cycle will continue; it's self-perpetuating. But if we want to reap lower correction's budgets, lower prison populations, and an educated work force, then there is only one way: Education!