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U.S. States Grapple with Exploding Prison Populations

Skyrocketing prison populations, largely the result of the failed "war on drugs" and "get tough on crime" policies, are no longer affordable for many states.

The U.S. penitentiary at Leavenworth was the country's largest maximum security federal prison from 1903 until 2005, when it became medium security. Credit: Americasroof/CC By 3.0

ATLANTA, Georgia, Feb 21 2012 (IPS) - Budget constraints combined with exploding prison populations are prompting a number of U.S. states, including some of in the politically conservative south, to rethink their criminal codes.

About 15 states have already enacted changes, while others, such as Georgia, are considering them, Alison Lawrence, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told IPS.

Changes include reduction or elimination of prison time for certain property crimes and drug crimes, and in some cases, emphasis on drug treatment instead of prison for drug addicts.

A recent report by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) outlines some of the changes already taken by some states.

For example, Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have reduced or eliminated jail or prison time for parole and probation violations, opting instead for stricter supervision and alternative sentences like community service, according to SCHR.

Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee have all created alternative sentencing options for low-level, low-risk offenders, such as parole and probation.

Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas have attempted to reduce recidivism, that is, people returning to prison, by stronger emphasis on reentry planning that is tailored to meet individuals’ needs.

In addition, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee have removed minimum sentencing requirements for certain drug-related violations.

Skyrocketing prison populations are largely the result of the failed “war on drugs” in the U.S., coupled with the “get tough on crime” policies advocated by many Republicans and some Democrats at the state and federal levels, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, an estimated two million people are behind bars in the U.S. – making up a staggering 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – with the majority of the increase since the 1980s comprising low-level offenders, particularly drug offenders.

But even Republicans are beginning to reverse course, with former speaker of the U.S. house Newt Gingrich, now a candidate for president, and right-wing lobbyist Grover Norquist joining with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to call for substantial reforms.

According to a 2011 NAACP report, spending by states on prisons has increased at a rate six times higher than that of spending on higher education. This amount is over 50 billion dollars annually, according to a 2009 report by the Pew Center on the States.

In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, used his first State of the State speech to call for prison policy reforms to reduce the strain on the state’s budget. He created a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which released a report with numerous recommendations in November 2011.

Sara Totonchi, executive director of SCHR, is pleased with the report, which incorporates many, but not all, of SCHR’s recommendations, and expects Georgia’s General Assembly to begin considering related legislation this week.

“I would say this is highly needed, highly anticipated, a step in the right direction. The reforms proposed by the Council are the beginning of the process Georgia must take to recover from its addiction to incarceration,” Totonchi told IPS.

“We’ve turned to prisons as a solution for any problem that plagues our community and it’s been an inappropriate solution. I’m hopeful that if the reforms are adopted, we will take an initial step towards curbing one of the biggest problems our state is facing,” she said.

SCHR also recommends that Georgia fully fund its public defender system, revisit its mandatory minimum sentencing laws for all crimes, and fully fund and implement comprehensive reentry services in the community, three actions not recommended by the Special Council.

In a May 2011 op-ed in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, said Republican leaders are pursuing prison reforms for the wrong reasons, that is, saving money instead of addressing racial disparities in incarceration.

But Totonchi is not as troubled by this. “We all come to the issues we care about for different reasons. We have reached the level of crisis in Georgia with our prison system. If the financial arguments are what’s winning with our conservative partners in this reform effort, I might even share some of their concern.”

“It’s the sort of thing I’m grateful for conservatives for coming to the table, given the power structure in Georgia, having them at the table is the only way we can get it,” Totonchi said.

“I would mention, take a look at what South Carolina and what Texas have done. These are states that are definitely our contemporaries, our peers. They have improved public safety,” she said.

Indeed, Texas led the way in prison reforms beginning in 2005, by changing sentencing for nonviolent, nonsexual, and nonserious offenders – the “triple nons” – and expanding resources for drug treatment and probation. This saved the state two billion dollars and even led to a drop in violent crimes by 12.3 percent since 2003, according to a 2010 report by Right on Crime.

Lawrence explained the connection. “Looking at recidivism rates, states have started to think we can do something better. Keep those dangerous criminals locked out, but maybe there’s less serious criminals, if we treat them in the community with substance abuse (treatment), they’ll commit less crime.”

In California, the problem of prison overcrowding became so bad that the federal courts had to step in, ordering the state to reduce its state prison populations to 137.5 percent of its prison capacity within two years, a reduction of 45,000 people.

In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the ruling, five to four.

In response, California moved many inmates out of state prisons and into county prisons, but it has not yet changed the sentencing laws, except to the extent that former governor Arnold Schwarzenneger, during his last days in office, removed the possibility of jail time for marijuana possession.

Indeed, some states like California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada and Oregon have enacted both medical marijuana laws and eliminated the possibility of jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

However, the movement to end marijuana prohibition has not been part of the conversation around Justice Reinvestment, Lawrence said.

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