Friday, April 29, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Sudden interest in non-violent offenders

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
April 29, 2011

Necessity is the mother of invention, and nowhere is that more evident than in the criminal justice system. During the better part of the last four decades policymakers looked to the prison system as a panacea for many of society’s ills.

Sixty-five percent of prisoners in America’s prisons suffer from substance abuse addiction. Ten percent of prisoners have severe psychiatric disorders. Thirty-nine percent of Pennsylvania's state prisoners are non-violent offenders.

No one seemed to mind growing prisons and soaring correction budgets as crime rates dipped to near record lows.

Suddenly, the economy soured, state revenue dried up and policymakers looked for ways to balance the budget. As a result, the clarion call for state lawmaker is now, “Keep ‘non-violent’ offenders out of state prison.”

Auditor General Jack Wagner recently suggested that Pennsylvania could save $50 million this fiscal year by transferring non-violent prison inmates to alternative sentencing programs. More than 19,000 inmates, or 39 percent of the prison population, are non-violent offenders.

"With Pennsylvania facing its greatest budget crisis since the Great Depression, we must look for sustainable savings in every nook and cranny of state government, and that includes the criminal justice system, which is one of the three biggest drivers of increased spending over the past decade," said Wagner.

Ohio Governor John Kasich is currently facing an $8 billion budget shortfall. Ohio’s prison problem is being driven, in part, by county authorities sentencing offenders to state institutions who would have otherwise received a county sentence. This trend in sentencing is a response to crowded county jails.

The governor has his eye on reversing the trend and keeping more non-violent offenders out of state prison. Kasich said at a December press conference, “Do you know what it costs to put somebody in the state pen? I’ve been told 30-40 percent of our prisoners are in the state pen for less than a year.”

According to a West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety the number of prisoners is expected to increase to 8,251 by 2015 and to 9,732 by 2020.

The number of violent offenders are expected to drop below 50 percent of the total inmate population by 2015, the report said. Last year more than 72 percent of all new prisoners were serving sentences on nonviolent offenses.

"Nonviolent crimes make up the majority of new admissions to state prisons," according to the report.

Where was the frustration with non-violent offenders five years ago? Why the angst now? Meaningful reform, beyond just balancing the budget, could have a positive impact on the criminal justice system. Piggy bank reform could end up being a threat to public safety.

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