The Pennsylvania Law Weekly
February 8, 2010
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., last month scored a dramatic upset victory in the special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.
Brown, who was sworn in as the Senate's 41st Republican on Thursday, is not likely to be your typical GOP senator.
He is pro-choice, pro-death penalty and although he was an ardent supporter of health care in Massachusetts, he used President Obama's health care plan to trounce Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the balloting on Jan. 19.
That may seem a bit disingenuous, but in reality Brown has a consistent position. He has said he believes health care reform should be left to the states. He told Meredith Vieira on NBC's "Today" show the morning after his election, "Well, I think we should allow the states to do what's important for their own states, have the federal government incentivize those individual states. And while I believe everybody should have insurance, I initially have to look out for our state."
Brown would do well to look at the states' response to prison health care and prison crowding before he so confidently pushes the uninsured off on to the states. Massachusetts has managed to insure 98 percent of its residents, while the rest of America has 43 million people uninsured. At the same time, while Michigan is closing prisons and renting beds to other states, Pennsylvania is building prisons and currently renting from Michigan.
Why the dramatically different responses? It is not just Michigan and Pennsylvania that have gone off in opposite directions. There seems to be as many responses as there are states to the pressing problem of dwindling budgets and expanding prison populations.
No one questions the seriousness of the problem. In little more than 20 years, the national prison population has nearly tripled from roughly 600,000 in 1987 to 1.6 million in 2007. Combine the number of people in prison with the people sitting in county and local jails, and the number of Americans behind bars balloons to 2.3 million. The Pew Center on the States reported that 1 in every 100 adults in the U.S. are in jail or prison. In fact, the U.S. imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the world.
There is no question that incarceration has had some impact on crime rates. Two of America's leading criminologists, Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University and James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University, both concede that incarceration has an impact on crime rates; they differ as to the degree. Wilson said, "Incarceration lowers crime rates, but no one thinks that prison is the whole answer." Blumstein contended, "There is little question that incarceration can contribute to crime reduction, but rarely as much as its advocates claim."
There is a new dynamic in the crime fighting by incarceration theory -- money, or the lack of it, to be more precise. State budget problems in recent years, and the prospect of even tighter future budgets, have forced some states to reassess their capacity to house more and more prisoners. The result has been a panoply of programs and initiatives to cut costs and lessen the number of prisoners. Most astounding is the lack of consensus among states regarding what works and what doesn't.
Criminology is a burgeoning field with many competent and innovative researchers who have published countless studies on incarceration, prison diversion, and cognitive intervention. Yet, individual states are all over the map in terms of dealing with prison crowding.
Here are but a few examples:
In Colorado, the governor cut $19 million from the corrections budget based on a plan for the early release of about 8,000 inmates. The projections were faulty. The parole board is refusing about 80 percent of the inmates targeted for release. At the current rate only about 1,600 will be released, saving far fewer dollars than projected.
In Massachusetts, the state is considering $100 million in cuts from the corrections budget. The state's 17 prison facilities are all well over capacity. The budget cuts may result in the closing of four prisons and the furlough of hundreds of employees.
In Iowa, the corrections budget has been cut by $35 million. The cuts may result in 515 layoffs and the elimination of 262 vacant positions. There is also the possibility of closing a facility and reducing treatment costs.
In Pennsylvania, the state plans to build four new 2,000-bed prisons to ease overcrowding. The Department of Corrections is currently renting bed space from other states. In 2007 and 2008, Pennsylvania had the highest increase in prison population. While the nationwide increase was 1 percent, Pennsylvania's prison population grew at a whopping 9.1 percent.
In Utah, the state is facing an $850 million dollar budget shortfall. The prison system has nearly reached its capacity and a 330 bed facility has been put on hold. The expansion of another prison has also been shelved indefinitely.
In Michigan, the state has closed three prisons and five work camps and is renting bed space to other states.
In Washington, the corrections budget has been reduced by 6.7 percent and the Department of Corrections has responded by proposing to close one adult prison and one juvenile detention center. This follows the early release of some 8,000 offenders from community supervision.
In Tennessee, the state is in a $1.5 billion hole and the Department of Corrections proposed the early release of low level felons. The state has about 19,700 inmates and plans to trim that number by about 20 percent to save the state nearly $53 million.
In Ohio, the state passed a budget last July that cut funding for colleges and universities by $170 million and public libraries by $84 million. Ohio has spent nearly a billion dollars to build 23 prisons since 1987 and still maintains population levels at 130 percent of capacity.
Texas, the state that leads the nation in executions, has reconsidered building more prisons. It has diverted the money to evidence-based substance abuse programs. Prison population growth has stabilized.
Illinois has released about 1,000 non-violent inmates to save about $5 million a year. The state is also contemplating closing prisons and reducing its 45,000 prisoners by 11,000.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is under court order to release 40,000 prisoners to ease the state's prison overcrowding problem. California has 172,000 prisoners in 33 institutions.
South Dakota has added 592 beds in the past four years and is building a new 250 bed prison to be opened this fall.
Kentucky's legislature has authorized the release of 3,127 inmates and has released another 3,874 offenders from community supervision to ease a budget crisis.
Arizona is accepting bids from private companies to take over their entire prison system. It is the first effort by a state to privatize prisons.
Missouri opened nine prisons between 1994-2004, and then the state closed a 1,000-bed prison in 2005. Missouri now has more prisoners than ever and limited space to house them.
In Connecticut, a budget shortfall has forced the state to close a minimum security prison in the face of a growing prison crowding problem.
In most states there are competing ideas on how to take on the very real problem of dwindling resources and prison overcrowding. Wisconsin is typical of most states. While early release of inmates has begun as a means to reduce a population that is 20 percent over capacity, there is also proposed legislation to build more prisons.
The above examples of 18 different states dealing with essentially the same issues -- dwindling resources and prison overcrowding -- should give pause to all Americans when Scott Brown says he favors leaving health care up to the states.
In these complex and difficult economic times, states should be mandated to adopt "best practices" to deal with issues that have a direct connection to public safety. The early release of prisoners or the building of new prisons at the expense of treatment programs, education or health care are issues that demand thorough evaluation and consistent implementation.
Is there a recognized evidence-based program that has been reviewed, analyzed and vetted by acknowledged experts regarding incarceration and prison overcrowding? A program that is verified by researchers and policymakers as having been successful in dealing with a problem that has the potential to affect so many aspects of state government? A model program that can be implemented nationwide that is both consistent and effective? There may well be, but right now there are 50 states looking in 50 different directions for the same thing.
How can we trust 50 states to implement a workable health care plan for 100 percent of their law abiding citizens when they can't come to a consensus on the best practice to deal with the housing and health care of their non-law abiding citizens that make up about 1 percent of the population?
That's a question Brown should answer before his Senate colleagues begin any filibuster of Obama's health care plan. •
Lauren Saene Key - 8/29/1996 - 11/8/2000
4 weeks ago