Monday, January 26, 2009

Prison population and the economy

Another day, another series of posts about the shrinking economy's effect on the prison population. It's not news that prisons in America are overpopulated – one in every one hundred Americans is behind bars. But it's a bitter-sweet development that economic considerations, rather than compassion or human rights concerns, constitute the impetus behind these new movements toward prison reform.

While Grits for Breakfast has a post encouraging a reduction in pre-trial detentions, Sentencing Law and Policy relates an article from the Concord Monitor in West Virginia about that state's search for solutions to their worsening budget crisis. The article contains this gem, in which I detect echoes of President Obama's inaugural speech:

"It's not about being tough on crime or soft on crime," [state Commissioner William Wrenn] said. "We are facing a huge economic challenge here. Are we doing the right thing?"

("The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...")

Inside the prison, Wrenn had reinstated a past practice of allowing well-behaved, successful inmates to request early release before they'd otherwise be able to do so through the courts. Inmates can petition Wrenn and a review board to recommend them for a sentence modification; if the board approves the request, it sends the petition onto the sentencing judge for a final decision.

...What Wrenn is most passionate about may be the hardest of the solutions to pull off: alternative sentencing for defendants who suffer mental illness or substance abuse addiction. He and a lot of others believe that if that population could be supervised and treated in their own communities and not housed in prison cells, the benefits would be many and not only monetary.

...In a recent study, The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies compared that cost by looking at a year inside prison against a year in Strafford County's Drug Court, an intensive supervision and treatment program that lets inmates live at home. The difference was staggering: $32,000 a year in prison versus about $11,400 a year in the Strafford County's alternative program.

Instead of outsourcing their prison system or fostering an environment akin to a concentration camp, West Virginia is seeking a more compassionate solution to prison overpopulation. Wrenn's proposals are strikingly sensible while being fair in the truest sense, and are also crafted with an eye toward protecting public safety. These approaches constitute more than an incremental improvement in prisoner treatment. It just took an economic downturn to bring this kind of "new" thinking to the forefront. Meanwhile, we hope other states adopt similar proposals in an attempt to humanize our correctional institutions.

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