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* Most states look to reduce populations, close doors
* Ohio, Louisiana, Florida weigh prison sales
* Some states worry about threat of early release
By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON, May 20 U.S. states have been
shackled for years by the rising cost of keeping inmates in
prison. Now they are planning a getaway.
In the final stretch of approving budgets for the next
fiscal year, many statehouses want to save money by changing
incarceration policies and closing prisons. Florida is set to
bring in more private contractors to run its prisons while Ohio
and Louisiana consider selling theirs.
More than 2 million people are in state and federal prisons
and local jails, many in facilities funded by states. For
almost all states, corrections is a rapidly growing expense.
State spending on prisons shot up to $74 billion in 2007
from $63 billion in 1997, according to the U.S. Bureau of
Justice Statistics. Local government spending on jails rose to
$116 billion from $99 billion during that same time.
One of the main reasons for the high cost is that the
United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in
the world, according to the International Center for Prison
Studies at King's College London.
The American rate stood at 743 people incarcerated per
100,000 of the population, ahead of both Russia's rate of 585
and China's rate of 120. In contrast, the rate in England and
Wales was 150, 117 in Canada, 96 in France, and 88 in Germany.
"Before the Great Recession hit, that was the standard
policy: let's lock them up," said John Thomasian, who has
analyzed U.S. corrections spending for the National Governors
Graphic showing how states fight rising prison cost:
With the average prisoner now costing $24,000 a year, most
states now want to cut prison populations to the point they can
close the facilities. Savings from a closed prison are so
significant that states may lay off corrections officers and
just let the buildings stand vacant.
"Even if it lies fallow, it's cheaper," Thomasian said.
Rising costs could even force states into a politically
unpopular position -- having to hike taxes to house criminals.
"Two of our three largest obligations for general revenue
tax dollars are facing unsustainable growth in the next few
years," Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe said in his annual address
in January. "Both our Medicaid costs and our prison population
are increasing, propelling us toward the unpalatable choice of
raising taxes or cutting services."
As the recession took hold, battles erupted in legislative
chambers across the country over slashing services and using
other once-unthinkable measures to save money. While state
revenue is improving, it hasn't reached pre-recession levels.
That means states must still close budget gaps totaling more
than $100 billion for the next fiscal year, which for most
starts on July 1.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
States are shrinking populations by offering inmates ways
to reduce sentences or by keeping people from going to prison
in the first place, said David Fathi, director of the National
Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
"These ideas have been around for a long time, but they are
getting a lot more traction now that states are having to look
at cutting essential services," he said.
Fathi's group is seeing states change regulations so a
person on parole will not go back to prison for a "technical"
violation, such as missing a meeting with a parole officer.
An informal analysis of a National Conference of State
Legislatures database shows that at the start of the fiscal
crisis, states cut prison operating costs, then released or
moved inmates and finally closed facilities. This saved more
than $4 billion.
During 2009, when the budget crisis was heating up, states'
prison populations declined 0.2 percent, the first drop since
1972, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In Ohio, the House recently passed a bill to offer "earned
compliance credits" that would move some prisoners to
less-intensive supervision and speed up probation and parole
processes, in the hope of emptying several thousand inmate beds
and saving $77.9 million per year.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, expanded a community sentencing
program for nonviolent offenders and increased the use of
Global Positioning System (GPS) monitoring. It also cut the
number of paroles the governor must approve.
The state's House Speaker Kris Steele said Oklahoma spends
$56 a day incarcerating someone, but only $3.50 a day putting
that person in community sentencing and $4.75 a day monitoring
the person with GPS. The legislation will save the state at
least $5 million a year, according to Governor Mary Fallin.
Privatizing prisons in Florida is touted to save the state
up to $40 million a year. The deal would bring in The GEO Group
(GEO.N), based in Florida's Boca Raton and the second-largest
U.S. private prison operator after Corrections Corporation of
America (CXW.N). [ID:nN12292092]
But bringing in private firms to run prisons is no panacea,
and in fact could end up costing states more.
In Arizona, the prison population has increased tenfold in
the last 30 years with the number of private prisons
mushrooming. However, a 2010 report from the auditor general
found that Arizona paid more for inmates in private prisons
than for those in state facilities. The cost of an inmate in a
state prison is $48.13 per day, compared to the cost of $55.89
per day in a private prison, according to the report.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's survey
of crimes reported by law enforcement, the violent crime rate
decreased 6.1 percent in 2009 from 2008 and declined 15.2
percent from 2000. The survey found property crimes dropped
16.1 percent from 2000 to 2009, as well.
A Department of Justice survey of households about crimes
such as rape and theft, which can pick up law-breaking that
victims do not report to the police, found that violent crime
rates in 2009 hit a record low.
A drop in criminal activity may drive down the need for
prisons, but a recent report from the Pew Center on the States
suggested much of the decline is because states have found ways
to "effectively reduce their prison populations without
sacrificing public safety."
Mostly, that had to do with parole. California and Michigan
both cut their prison populations by giving parolees
alternatives to returning to prison for minor violations, the
Pew report said.
Still, some worry early releases threaten public safety.
Wisconsin State Senator Van Wanggaard blasted a bill on the
state's early release program, saying "our society, our
judicial system and our crime victims demand accountability for
crimes -- not early release."
(Additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Tom
Brown in Miami; Editing by Andrea Ricci)