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Lowering the Costs of Virginia's Prison System

Governor Kaine has recommended several ways to save money on the high cost of prisons as part of his proposal to close the $3 billion budget gap. How should conservatives respond to these proposals? Typically, prison budgets have been off limits for Republicans in the General Assembly. 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 time may have come when conservatives need to cast the same wary eye at prison costs that they do at every other item in the state budget. The proposed Department of Corrections budget is a whopping 6.7 percent of all state expenditures, $1.4 billion. This is double the $724 million spent just eight years ago in 2001. This dramatic increase in prison costs has occurred while violent crime has decreased significantly. Since 2001, violent crime dropped 7.6 percent, and since 1991 there has been a 27.1 percent decrease. Yet, Virginia’s prison incarceration rate has increased 22 percent.


Lest you think that the drop in crime was the result of our large prison budget, let’s look at what has been happening in other states. Maryland’s violent crime rate has dropped a similar 24 percent since 1991 and they have been able to lower their incarceration rate by 5 percent. Texas has seen a 9 percent drop in violent crime and has reduced their incarceration rate by 3 percent.


So why is Virginia’s corrections budget increasing despite falling crime rates, while other states are able to reduce the number of people incarcerated? It is Virginia’s policies that are driving Virginia’s budget up and up; policies that are not making us safer. They are just costing us more money.


One area that needs to be examined is the return to prison of offenders who have not committed a new crime, but have violated their terms of release. These technical violations have often been ignored dozens of times, and then the system cracks down with years more in prison. Shouldn’t there be a response short of a prison sentence that lets these offenders know that we take the rules seriously. We need a system of graduated sanctions that tighten down on offenders who don’t follow the rules without forfeiting the progress they have made. One judge summed up the situation well when he said, “Please give me more options. Right now I can send them to prison or let them go to the beach.”


Virginia should look at how Judge Steven Alm, a former federal prosecutor, has, with remarkable success, implemented Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or H.O.P.E. The program enforces the rules of probation with immediate consequences. If offenders have a dirty drug test, they are immediately taken to jail – but not for years, just 24 or 48 hours. If they have a paying job their incarceration is postponed until the weekend – but there is no exception to serving it then. Drug treatment is provided for those who have difficulty staying clean.


The results so far are excellent. An independent study by researchers at U.C.L.A and Pepperdine sponsored by the Pew Center on the States found that H.O.P.E participants:
• Were three times less likely to be arrested than the comparison group of probationers.
• Were less than half as likely as members of the comparison group to test dirty for drugs or to miss probation appointments.
• Were revoked at a rate of just 9 percent versus 31 percent for the comparison group.

Virginia’s conservatives need to examine all of our policies to try to get more bang for their corrections bucks. Other conservative states are doing just that and the results are promising. 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 Governor Kaine has recommended several ways to save money on the high cost of prisons.—gradually increasing penalties for missed treatment appointments or dirty drug tests.


In Texas last year, with the Senate in control of Democrats and the House in Republican hands, legislators from both parties decided against spending $523 million on more prison cells.


Representative Jerry Madden, the conservative Republican who chairs the House Corrections Committee, working with his Democrat counterpart in the Senate, John Whitmire, chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, completely redesigned the Texas DOC so that expensive prison beds were reserved for dangerous criminals, while the low risk inmates were housed locally and put in programs proven to help them turn their lives around.


They dramatically expanded drug treatment and diversion beds, many of them in secure facilities. They also approved broad changes in parole practices and expanded drug courts. The reforms are expected to save Texas $210 million over the next two years—plus an additional $233 million if the recidivism rate drops and the state can avoid contingency plans to build three new prisons. For the next five years, new projections by the Legislative Budget Board show the prison trend is a flat line.


Other states such as Kansas and Nevada are making changes to protect public safety and hold down the costs of prisons by holding lower-risk offenders accountable in less-costly settings and using intermediate sanctions for parolees and probationers who violate conditions of their release, community-based programs such as day reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service.


The purpose of these programs is to help prisoners change their hearts and their habits. One key element in helping offenders, whether inside prison or in the community, is religion. Offenders need a moral compass; a reason to do the right thing whether anyone is looking or not. For over thirty years Prison Fellowship has worked to transform the lives of prisoners and their families. A study of our programs in New York found that if an inmate participated in 10 or more of our Bible studies they were 2/3 less likely to re-offend. Despite this remarkable success rate, at no cost to the taxpayers, there are sometimes bureaucratic roadblocks to our volunteers. As Virginia reviews its corrections policies, I hope that they will welcome the helping hands that churches offer to inmates as they work to turn their lives around.


Governor Kaine’s proposed cuts need to be examined carefully to insure that public safety is not compromised to save money. On the other hand, conservatives should not be afraid to embrace new policies that lower the cost of corrections while keeping us safe.


Photo on homepage used under a creative commons license from egvvnd.

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