NO HARD TIME FOR PRISON BUDGETS
by John M. Broder
LOS ANGELES – Gov. Gray Davis’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year left virtually no state program immune from the pain. State subsidies for homeless shelters will be slashed. Artificial limbs will no longer be provided for impoverished amputees. Welfare payments to the blind will be cut. College students will pay higher fees. But the state’s vast prison system emerged untouched. In fact, Mr. Davis, a Democrat, proposed a $40 million increase in the corrections department’s $5.3 billion budget and wants to spend $220 million on a new death row at San Quentin.
At a time when two-thirds of the states are facing severe budget shortfalls, governors are struggling to maintain their costly and overcrowded prisons, a legacy of the get-tough-on-crime climate of the past 25 years. There are now nearly two million inmates, each costing on average more than $22,000 a year. Prisons may be busting state budgets, but there is not a governor today who wants to be seen as soft on crime. Many governors, like Mr. Davis, George E. Pataki of New York and Ted Kulongoski, the newly elected Democratic governor of Oregon, have made a point of maintaining or increasing prison spending, even at the expense of other social programs.
Benjamin D. de Haan, the interim director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, asked the Legislature to close five prisons and release 3,000 prisoners to meet spending targets for the next budget cycle. Oregon’s prisons are bursting at the seams because voters in 1994 approved a stiff sentencing system that lengthened the average prison stay to 40 months from 16 months. The state now houses 12,000 prisoners at a cost of $500 million a year.
“We’re building prisons as quickly as possible, but we can’t keep up, “Dr. de Haan said. “We’re going to have to contract for beds in county jails and just crowd them into existing institutions. “Governor Kulongoski and the Legislature, fearing a popular backlash, rejected Dr. de Haan’s plan. Instead, the governor proposed slightly increasing the department’s budget.
Critics on the left say that these governors are neglecting critical social programs for political reasons. “It’s outrageous,” said Gloria Romero, a California state senator and the Democratic chairwoman of a new legislative committee on prisons. “It’s easy to slash those programs that serve the poor, the elderly, the disabled, children on welfare. They don’t have politically powerful lobbyists walking the halls of Sacramento. Why should corrections be the only department that gets an increase, and a significant one at that?”
Critics of Mr. Davis point to the $3 million the prison guards’ union has contributed to Mr. Davis’s political campaigns as a possible reason. But state officials argue that while prison populations have leveled off after more than a decade of explosive growth, costs continue to rise. In the 1990’s, many states committed to expensive prison construction plans, which must be completed. Federal court orders have mandated an end to triple-bunking and ordered the establishment of prison educational and recreational programs in some states. Health care expenses are spiraling, in part because the prison population is growing older.
Elsewhere, governors are looking for cuts that don’t imperil public safety or their political futures. About half the states have cut spending on prisons over the past year and expect further cuts for the coming year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some cuts are unlikely to rile voters. Minnesota is charging prisoners for room and board. Iowa cut desserts from twice a day to once a day and replaced orange juice with a generic version of Tang.
Other cuts may turn out to be politically unpopular, should there be a rise in crime. Kentucky, Montana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas are releasing certain nonviolent prisoners early. Other states are trying to repeal or revise tough sentencing laws like mandatory minimums, so-called truth-in-sentencing laws, three-strikes provisions and cutbacks in parole. The laws, which states began to adopt in the 1970’s, resulted in a nearly six-fold increase in prison populations over the last three decades.
Michigan voted to repeal its strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes, reducing the number of first-time drug offenders being locked up. Connecticut, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Dakota have altered their mandatory sentencing laws, allowing much shorter sentences for nonviolent offenders.
ARKANSAS, California, Idaho, Oregon and Texas have expanded the role of drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Governor Pataki made an issue during his re-election campaign of changing the Rockefeller-era sentencing laws that have put 19,000 drug offenders behind bars in New York, but nothing has happened yet. “What they are doing is trying to make a distinction between who we are angry at and who we are afraid of,” said Nicholas Turner, director of national programs at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, a research group. “Those we are afraid of belong behind bars, but those we are angry at we can sanction in a different way that is less expensive. For the past 20 years, we’ve just relied on prisons to deal with both groups.” But what troubles conservatives is that this debate over sentencing is being driven by budget problems, not questions of justice or public safety.
“The state ought not to change criminal penalties or release people early solely out of a concern for cost savings,” said Todd F. Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “Laws which unfairly or unjustly incarcerate people ought to be repealed, regardless of the budgetary impact. But laws that the citizens demanded to protect them and that justly incarcerate criminals ought not to be touched.”
Sun, 19 Jan 2003Source: New York Times (NY) Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company