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Strapped States Threaten Prisoner Releases to Extort Revenue

by Matthew Clarke

In the wake of an economic downturn, states throughout the country are facing budget deficits averaging 15% of their previous general revenue. A uniform response to the revenue shortfall has been to threaten the early release of state prisoners. However, this appears to be merely a threat to extort revenue, not a reality. Few prisoners have actually been released early and few states intend to release any prisoners early. The most that happens is that a few days are shaven off the sentences of a few non-violent prisoners. The general response is to allow the threat of early release to overshadow any opposition to the cutting of education and health care budgetsthe typical cost-cutting measure.

The other alternative, increasing taxes, is rarely mentioned and almost never taken seriously. Most state legislators and governors campaigned on promises not to raise taxes.

"What has happened is that corrections has grown so enormously and consumed so many resources, it has finally become a target for budget cutters as the economy has turned down," said Chase Riveland a prison consultant who previously headed the Colorado and Washington prison systems.

State politicians are caught in a quandary. They must balance the budget despite large deficits. If they raise taxes, they commit political suicide. If they release prisoners early, they appear "soft on crime," another form of political suicide. The easy, gutless, and most commonly invoked way out of the quandary is to cut social services and education.

State officials claim that prior construction commitments, federal court orders to stop triple bunking prisoners and establish minimal education and recreation programs as well as the rising cost of prisoner health care has led to an upward spiral in prison costs despite a decrease in growth of the prison populations after a decade of explosive growth.

Some experts believe that more fundamental change is needed to undo the fiscal imbalances caused by the prison building boom of the 80s and 90s. One such fundamental change would be the reversal of draconian mandatory sentencing laws. Another would be the attempt to treat, rather than merely incarcerate, first-time offendersespecially those arrested for possession of small amounts of drugs.

"In 23 years in the field, this is the most receptive atmosphere [towards sentencing reforms] I've ever seen," said Vincent Schiraldi of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute.

Some states have already begun reformation of their sentencing excesses. North Carolina led the way_ with sentencing reform in 1994 which aimed at giving repeat violent offenders stiff prison sentences, but reserving community-based sanctions for nonviolent first-time offenders. This caused a drop in the percentage of people imprisoned following arrest from 42% to 20%. Michigan retroactively eliminated most of its draconian sentencing law on December 12, 2002. Likewise, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and Washington have implemented modest sentencing reforms reducing the minimum sentence for nonviolent offenders.

Arkansas and Oregon have chosen to use, or expand the use of, drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Kansas is discussing the possibility of drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

Iowa, Texas, and Virginia have cut back on prisoner's food to save money. Minnesota is charging prisoners room and board.


The Arkansas state prison board has authorized early parole eligibility for up to 455 male and 66 female prisoners in an attempt to alleviate overcrowding in the state's prison system. The state prison capacity is 10,968, but the prisoner population was 13,114 with 1,201 of them backed up in county jails. The prison system will seek a $225.6 million budget for fiscal 2004 and $233 million for fiscal2005, up from $182.9 million in fiscal 2003.


California is experiencing a $35 billion budget shortfall. Governor Gray Davis's proposed budget includes radical measures. Homeless shelter subsidies have been slashed. Poverty stricken amputees will no longer receive state help in getting artificial limbs. Welfare payments to blind citizens will be cut. State funding for cancer research will be eliminated. AIDS patients will have to pay more for their drugs. College students will pay more in fees. Local governments will lose $3 billion a year in state compensation for their reduction in vehicle license fees. City redevelopment agencies will lose over half a billion dollars. Income, sales, and cigarette taxes may be raised by $8.3 billion a year. The budget for every state department will be cut an average of eight percent. However, the prison system will receive an increase of $40 million to its $5.3 billion budget. Davis also wants to spend another $220 million to build a new death row at San Quentin.

Critics note the $3 million in campaign contributions by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the prison guards' union, and see that as the primary reason he is loath to reduce the prison system's budget. CCPOA also wined and dined several key state lawmakers at a conference it sponsored last December in Hawaii.

On March 18, 2003, Davis vetoed a bill, SB 15X, designed to reduce expenditures by providing for additional early release credits for some non-violent prisoners participating in work or school programs. He specifically rejected the proposal by California Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill to release some non-violent and elderly prisoners early. Hill calculated that such a sentence reduction of one month would save $20.8 million. California incarcerates 160,000 prisoners, 61% of whom are considered nonviolent.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would release as many as 2,600 of the 20,000 county jail prisoners in April, 2003. His plan is to place them under house arrest and in work release programs in an effort to reduce costs. The eligible prisoners are those convicted of misdemeanors such as domestic violence, DWI, and minor weapons violations. The prisoners would be screened to avoid releasing those with violent tendencies. Some would be required to wear electronic monitors.

The sheriff's department's $1.6 billion budget was reduced by $84 million with a possibility of another $143 million being cut next year. The release would save $17 million.


State Rep. James Abrams, a conservative Republican and co-chair of the subcommittee overseeing state spending, has suggested the early release of nonviolent prisoners to reduce the state's $500 million budget gap. Connecticut's prison population boomed from 2,750 in 1980 to 19,249 in 2002. However, in March, 2003, Governor John G. Rowland proposed a 77 increase in the prison system's budget, but also recommended a halt in prison construction. The prison system's budget grew from $236 million in 1991 to $534.2 million in 2002.

Meanwhile, Superior Courts in Hartford and New Haven have postponed the hearing of all non-emergency habeas corpus matters due to the loss of 300 to 400 judicial branch employee caused by budget cutting measures.


Prison officials have been discussing how to deal with overcrowding in the 9,000-prisoner Kansas prison system and an estimated $800 million shortfall in the State's $4.4 billion budget. In December 2002, two directions were discussed: building two 128-cell units at the El Dorado Correctional Facility or diverting some first-time drug offense prisoners into treatment programs. Adding the cells would cost $14.4 million. Diverting the prisoners would save $18,500 per prisoner per year.


The debate over early releases peaked in November 2002, when Kentucky Governor Paul Patton said the state was considering the early release of prisoners to help reduce a $509 million state budget deficit. On December 19, 2002, the first of 567 non-violent prisoners within 80 days of completing their sentences were released. 90 of them were released to jails or other states where they faced additional charges. The release excluded sex offenders, fourth time drunken drivers, and violent or mentally ill prisoners. Part of the conditional commutation stipulated that the commuted time would be added to any future sentence the prisoners receive. Another 328 prisoners with an average of 136 days remaining on their sentences were released under similar conditions on January 18, 2003. This is expected to save Kentucky a total of $3 million by the end of the fiscal year. Kentucky has an overall budget shortfall of $509 million.


On December 12, 2002, the Michigan Senate passed three sentencing reform billsHB 5394 (H-3); BB 5395 (H-2); and BB 6510 (H-1)which eliminate most of the state's draconian mandatory minimum sentence laws for drug offenses. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) spearheaded a grassroots effort at sentencing reform. They also had support from prosecutors' and defense attorneys' organizations, the NAACP, and the Michigan Catholic Conference and many other groups. In 1998, FAMM led a successful drive to reform a law mandating life sentences for persons with 650 grams or more of cocaine or heroin. This reform campaign had the support of former Governor William G. Milliken who called his signing of the mandatory minimum sentence law in 1978 "the worst mistake of my career."


In October 2002, the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC), reacting to a $9 million budget shortfall, launched a prisoner-release program to help save money. However, of the 500 initially eligible non-violent prisoners, the DOC only released 100 men and 42 women. Up to 500 prisoners could be released under the program.

Meanwhile, the state's only private prison, Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, is losing money and requesting a change in the law to allow it to receive out-of-state prisoners. Rep. Edith Clark, R-Sweetgrass, introduces House Bill 451 which would reverse the part of Montana's 1999 private prison law prohibiting out-of-state prisoners. Ironically, Clark helped get that law on the books. Polls of Montana residents show that 72 percent oppose housing out-of-state prisoners in Montana.

North Carolina

North Carolina eliminated 23 state-paid prison chaplain positions in the Fall of 2002 after eliminating seven the previous year. This leaves a total of 36 full-time prison chaplains. The prison system was ordered to reduce its budget by $70.4 million by cutting 366 jobs.


In Oklahoma, conservative Republican governor Frank Keating has asked the Pardon and Parole Board to find 1,000 non-violent prisoners suitable for release. During his tenure, Keating added 1,000 prisoners a year to the previously small prison system.

"Oklahoma has always prided itself on being a law-and-order state," said Cal Hobson, Democrat and president of the OK State Senate. "Now we've got more law and order than we can afford."

Keating also planed to furlough more than 4,000 prison system employees a total of 23 days to help make up $14 million of the $19 million prison system budget cut. This led to protests at the state capitol by prison system employees in October 2002. The Legislature managed to find $9.8 million to hold off the furloughs for a few months. However, this will probably not be enough to last until the new fiscal year in June 2003.

Oklahoma's prison budget exploded from $50.7 million in 1980 to $398 million in 2000. In 2002, the prison system requested $511 million and received $434 million. Even that was insufficient and the prison system had to request supplemental funding in 2002. During the same period, the state's population grew slowly from 3,025,487 in 1980 to 3,450,654 in 2000, but the prison population ballooned from 4,595 in 1980 to 22,666 in 2000.


Dr. Benjamin D. de Haan, interim director of the Oregon prison system, asked the legislature to close five prisons and release a quarter of the state's 12,000 prisoners to reduce the prison system's $500 million annual price tag and alleviate severe overcrowding.

Oregon Governor Kulongski and the state legislature rejected de Hann's request and the governor proposed a slight increase in the prison system's 2003 budget. In an attempt to reduce the budget by $21 million, as required by Measure 28, and survive fiscally until July 2003 (when the new budget takes effect), the prison system cut 14 administrative and support positions, canceling 70 service contracts with free-world programs, such as Chemeketa Community College, delaying spending for uniforms and other inventory purchases, and suspended construction on new prisons. This has resulted in many prisoners being housed in temporary or emergency beds. No prisons are expect to be closed or any prisoners released early.

On January 30, 2003, the first 31 of up to 500 prisoners were released from the Multnomah County Jail in Portland. Sheriff Bernie Giusto said the releases were necessitated by a $1 million shortfall in his department's budget.

The releases came after the defeat on January 28, 2003, of a proposed tax hike intended to stave off $310 million in spending cuts. Other cuts will include the elimination of 8,000 elderly and disabled people from the state Health Plan, the elimination of 4,100 disabled people from in-home or assisted-living programs, the reduction of mental health services for 7,200 people, and a $95 million cut in the education budget.

South Carolina

In January 2003, the state prison system closed the infirmaries at five state prisons. 38 prisoners were affected. 20 were moved to an infirmary at Kirkland Correctional Institute. 18 went to Columbia Care, a private prison medical facility run by Just Care, Inc. of Alabama. The closings were part of a plan to stem the prison system's huge budget deficit, but critics claimed the private prison medical care would increase, not reduce costs.

In an attempt to avoid a $20 million deficit in the prison system budget, it has closed two prisons, dropped more than 1,000 of its 7,000 workers and has about 1,600 of its more than 22,000 prisoners sleeping on the floors of gyms and dayrooms or three to a two-man cell.

In less than two yearsfrom 2000 to 2002the prison system's operational budget was cut by 21.5%, down to $264.3 million. In December 2002, it was cut another 5% or $13.9 million. At the same time, the number of prisoners increased by 1,186 during 2002 while the system has two fewer prisons to house them in than it had at the start of 2002.

Prison officials say that the only way they can continue to operate is to be given permission to operate with a $20 million deficit. Otherwise, they will have to release prisoners, close prisons, and lay off employees.

"They've pretty much squeezed all the blood they can out of the turnip," said state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee.


In coming to grips with a $9.9 billion state budget shortfall, the Legislature voted to slash prison spending by reducing the prison system's food budget by $6.3 million, utilities by $4.5 million, arigucultural operations by $6.5 million, and maintenance by $7 million. The plan specifically includes reducing the caloric content of the food fed prisoners by 200 calories a day, replacing liquid milk with powdered milk. The total cut in the prison system's budget is $172 million.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Gary Johnson questioned his ability to run the system on the budget. "We're going to have to be real creative in order to put three meals a day on the table that are nutritious," said Johnson. "This would be a sizeable reduction in our ability to buy food for our" prisoners which are a growing population with projections of additional growth.

Regarding soy products, Johnson reminded reporters that his predecessor in office, James "Andy" Collins and Canadian businessman Yank Berry were convicted in federal court on criminal charges for participating in a scheme to illegally distribute a soy-based meat substitute product in the prison system. State officials at that time noted that the frequent feeding of VitaPro demoralized staff and prisoners, led to health problems, and caused rampant flatulence.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, noted that the new budget numbers may be mere fantasy. "They're going to need more money than that for their utilities," said Turner. He predicted a shortfall of up to $30 million at the end of the fiscal cycle. The goal, he said, was "to get TDCJ as lean as possible without disrupting their core functions."

Organizations such as the ACLU and Houston Ministers Against Crime, joined by conservative Republican district judge Michael McSpadden, have advocated reducing the possession of trace amounts of controlled substances to a misdemeanor as a way to reduce the intake of new prisoners while allowing prosecutors to concentrate on more serious offenses. This proposal has met with stiff opposition from state Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.

A massive prison building program, begun under the governorship of Ann Richards, expanded the prison system from 50,900 beds in 1991 to 151,470 in 2002. The building program merely resulted in more prisoners being sent to the system. Thus, Texas is once again grappling with overcrowded prisons. Currently, the prison system plans to cut drug treatment programs leading to parole from 9 to 6 months and convert a prison for juveniles in Hamilton to an adult prison. The prison system also drastically curtailed drug abuse treatment, education, and non-security staff in an effort to cut spending.

The Legislature also drastically cut spending on probation programs, cutting out altogether a program to pay for psychiatric medication for indigent parolees and probationers needing it.


In attempting to deal with a $117 million shortfall in income and capital gains tax, the Legislature cut $66 million from the state departments' base budgets, including $2.1 million cut from the prison system and $1.4 million cut from state law enforcement. The result is predicted to be the loss of 50 law enforcement jobs and early release of 300 prisoners from prisons and halfway houses. Greater budget cuts are expected in the 2004 budget.


Gloom and doom forecasts gave way to elation by prison employees when Governor Mark K. Warner declined to close prisons in Brunswick and Staunton. The move saved about 650 prison employees' jobs. The intent was to cut spending to make up for an expected $48 million shortfall caused by the loss of out-of-state contract prisoners. The crisis was averted when Vermont signed a one year contract for prisoner incarceration. Virginia has contracts to incarcerate prisoners with Connecticut, New Mexico, Vermont, and the Virgin Islands.

Virginia is still struggling with a $2 billion state budget shortfall. To reduce costs without cutting jobs, prisons will cut back the number of meals served to prisoners on weekdays and holidays to two per day. The new weekend menu includes a "brunch" served at 8:00 a.m. (two hours earlier than usual) and a dinner served at 4 p.m. (two hours later than usual). Some prisoners have complained that it is not enough food to keep them from being hungry. The 1937-built Southampton prison was recently closed without protest. The budget cutting includes the loss of 14 prison administration positions. Virginia has about 31,000 prisoners in around 100 prisons.

Meanwhile, Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney Harvey L. Bryant III announced that, due to state budgetary cuts, he would no longer prosecute the 2,200 yearly domestic violence cases his office gets.


Governor Gary Locke proposed a $1.1 billion prison budget which includes a plan to implement a new sentencing law which will release 1,200 prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses a few months earlier and eliminate state supervision of 2,900 low-risk offenders who have completed their prison sentences and 22,000 who have completed their jail sentences. He also included plans to build 868 new beds at the Walla Walla state prison, 100 high security cells at the Monroe reformatory and complete a 2,000 bed prison at Connell. Washington incarcerates 17,500 state prisoners in jails and prisons and supervises 17,000 parolees. It also holds 200 civilly committed sex offenders who, at $150,000 per person per year, cost 600% of the average cost of incarceration for state prisoners. Washington also recently sent several hundred prisoners to Nevada prisons. Washington's prison system will continue growing for the foreseeable future.


Frustrated by working for almost two years without a pay raise because their new contract has not been approved, one-third of the guards at Green Bay Correctional Institution called in sick on February 6, 2003. Some Republican legislators have said that the state, which faces a $3.2 billion budget shortfall, cannot afford to pay the raises. The contract calls for a 1% raise retroactive to July 1, 2001, a 2% raise retroactive to July 1, 2002, and a 2.5% raise effective April, 2003. It requires legislative approval before it can take effect.


The State may change, but the song remains the same. Threaten to release hoards of big nasty felons if the prison budget is cut, then settle for cutting back on prisoner's food, health care, and programs, while the bulk of the budget cuts are weathered by social service agencies. This leads to less essential services for the poor and no release of prisoners. Only a few states have been far sighted enough to reform their mandatory sentencing laws. Fewer still have allowed any early releases. None have allowed releases other than shaving a few days off of nonviolent prisoners' sentences. Despite continued low crime rates, the nation's prison populations contiue their steady growth.

Sources: Arkansas News; Associated Press; Baytown (TX) Sun; Billings (MT) Gazette; Christian Science Monitor; Connecticut Post; Green Bay (WI) Press-Gazette; Hartford (CT) Courant; Houston Chronicle; Kansas City Star; Lawrence (KS) Journal-World; Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader; Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal; New Haven (CT) Register; New York Times; Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch; Sacramento (CA) Bee; San Francisco Chronicle; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Ventura County (CA) Star; Tulsa (OK) World; Walla Walla (WA) Union-Bulletin; Washington (DC) Post

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