Thursday, May 20, 2010

Prison Budgets Slashed: At What Cost?

The recession, and the drain it’s put on state budgets, has produced significant cost cutting in many state legislatures according to The trend in corrections this year is much the same as it was in 2009 — the first year in a long time that state spending on prisons actually went down. Lawmakers are still searching for savings anywhere they can find them. examined a number of states that are cutting back on corrections cost in a way that could jeopardize public safety.

In Kansas,lawmakers have slashed funding for substance-abuse treatment slots at the heart of the state’s community corrections program. The program, create in 2007, was model for other states and had a significant impact on recidivism. The bad economy isn’t just resulting in budget cuts for corrections. The tough job market also is intensifying the strain on those released from prison — which can increase the chances that some will return to crime. Already, the state finds itself 120 prisoners over capacity.

The same is true in Oklahoma. “We have no drug treatment programs at medium security or above (facilities),” says Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. “We eliminated all sex offender treatment, even though it was mandated by statute. We have reduced our staffing to below 75 percent of what is authorized.”

More than most states, Oklahoma is an example in austerity. The Department of Corrections has absorbed a 10-percent cut in the current fiscal year, and Jones is bracing for additional cuts of up to 7.5 percent for the fiscal year that begins in July. What other states only now are slashing from their prison budgets, Jones says, Oklahoma cut years ago. It is one of very few states, for example, to double-bunk its death-row inmates, and even the tiny portion of the corrections budget that pays for inmate programs — as opposed to employee salaries and other operational costs — has been cut by 50 percent, according to Jones.

In New Jersey, which has among the largest budget deficits in the nation, the head of the state corrections department recently outlined the steps he would have to take to make ends meet. The cuts range from more double-bunking to the most mundane details of daily prison life: Inmates’ work boots will be replaced by cheaper sneakers.

State lawmakers, meanwhile, are realizing that some prison budget cuts they have approved can be counterproductive from a political point of view. California, Illinois and Oregon each have tried to thin their prison populations — and cut costs — by allowing thousands of inmates to shave time off their sentences through earned-time credits and other forms of accelerated release.

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