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Common Sense Prison Reforms Will Help McDonnell Close Budget Gap

When Bob McDonnell is sworn in as Governor in January he will inherit a budget that is out of balance by at least $1.35 Billion. Spending on correction is expanding faster than nearly all others sectors of the budget and is an area that Governor McDonnell must look to for savings. I realize that it is unusual for a conservative to suggest cuts in the criminal justice system. Public safety is one of the primary responsibilities of government, and the fast rising costs of prisons have been viewed by conservatives as the price tag for protecting the public.

However, the current budget crisis requires us to examine every facet of state spending to find ways to make state government more efficient. The Department of Corrections is no exception. If the legislature doesn’t adopt reforms that reduce the cost of prisons, corrections costs will devour ever larger portions of the budget.

The challenge is finding economies in the justice system while keeping the public safe. Fortunately, conservative legislators in several other states have been able to accomplish that, and by applying the policies that have proven effective elsewhere, Virginia can pare the costs of our prisons without sacrificing public safety.

The Department of Corrections budget has just about doubled over the last eight years to a whopping $1.25 billion this year, sucking up one in every 13 dollars from the general fund. This dramatic increase in prison costs has occurred while violent crime has decreased significantly. Since 1991 violent crime in Virginia has dropped by 27.1 percent, but our incarceration rate has increased 22 percent. In that same period, Virginia has built over 22,000 additional prison beds at a capital cost of over $1.1 billion.

Some will argue that this drop in crime was the result of increasing the number of prisoners. But the fact is that crime dropped in every state. In fact, some states that actually cut their prison populations had a much larger drop in crime than Virginia.

New York State reduced the number of prisoners while also cutting its violent crime by 63 percent. In New York City, where most of the state’s released offenders go, murders dropped from 2,605 in 1990 to 801 in 2007. They are on track to a record low of only 435 murders this year. This breathtaking drop in murders has occurred even as the state was sending fewer offenders to prison.

And last year, even ‘tough on crime’ Texas decided against spending $523 million to build three more prisons. Led by conservative Republicans, Representative Jerry Madden and Governor Rick Perry, and with the support of the Democratic leadership of the Senate, they enacted sweeping reforms of their prison system expected to save $210 million over the next two years. They redirected much of the money saved into community treatment for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts. Not only have these reforms reduced Texas’ prison population and helped close their budget gap, but for the very first time there is no waiting list for drug treatment in the Lone Star state.

Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Carolina have reduced their prison population while cutting their crime rates, and saved hundreds of millions of dollars. These states have shown that it is possible to cut the costs of prisons while keeping the public safe.
So why does Virginia’s corrections budget continue to increase despite falling crime rates, while other states are able to reduce the number of people incarcerated? Virginia has several policies that are driving Virginia’s budget ever higher. These policies are not making us safer; they are just costing us more money.

For instance, almost 10 percent of new admissions to Virginia’s prisons haven’t committed a new crime. They have merely broken the rules of their supervision. Many of these offenders are just knuckleheads who don’t follow the rules. They don’t turn in paperwork, or miss an appointment with their parole officer or test dirty for drugs. Of course we want them to follow the rules, but at $28,000 per prison bed per year, it is very costly – and counterproductive – to send these ‘technical violators’ back to prison.

It is far more effective, and costs much less, to administer quick, certain and short consequences for breaking the rules. In Hawaii, Project Hope enforces the rules of probation with immediate consequences. If offenders have a dirty urinalysis they are immediately jailed – but not for years, just 24 or 48 hours. The result: reduced ‘dirty’ drug tests by 91 percent and a drop in both revocations and new arrests by two-thirds. This program accomplishes what we want – teaching offenders to follow the rules and keeping addicts in drug treatment – without filling the prisons.

Kansas and Nevada hold lower-risk offenders accountable in less-expensive, non-prison settings. They use community-based programs such as day reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service to hold offenders accountable at far less cost than imprisonment. At least 13 states have created or expanded options for punishing offenders in the community, such as drug courts that use both the carrot — offering treatment for substance abuse — and the stick — gradually increasing penalties for missed treatment appointments or dirty drug tests.

Virginia, on the other hand, makes little use of community punishments and holds a much higher percentage of our offenders in expensive prison beds. This over-reliance on incarceration costs Virginia almost 20 times more per day than we would spend supervising lower-risk offenders in the community.
These and other alternatives are described in a recently released report from the Virginia Task Force on Alternatives for Non-Violent Offenders, which was charged with finding ways to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs.

The Task Force was chaired by the Secretary of Public Safety and included broad representation from the many institutions charged with protecting the public: sheriffs and police chiefs, prosecutors, judges, prison officials, jail administrators, parole officials, staff from the Attorney General’s office, the sentencing commission and the legislature, as well as planning and budget officials. The Task Force makes 17 recommendations that, if implemented, could reduce the prison population by at least 947 offenders and save $4,718,901 in marginal costs each year at a minimum, without compromising public safety.
In addition, because of the significant reduction in the number of inmates, the state could close an entire prison, which would save approximately $23 million each year. While these reforms won’t solve the entire budget shortfall, they certainly bring us a lot closer to narrowing the gap.

As Bob McDonnell takes the reins of state government, the recommendations of the Task Force provide him with a road map of proven solutions that will improve our justice system and save the state a considerable amount of money. Conservatives should embrace these new policies because they protect the taxpayer and make our communities safer. That sounds pretty conservative to me.

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