In the early 1970s, America's prison population began a dramatic expansion that has continued, uninterrupted, ever since. By the year 2000, one in every 14 general-fund dollars spent by the states was being spent on incarceration. Vast high-security prisons were constructed at a cost of a quarter of a billion dollars each. Today, prison spending is, on average, the third-largest state expenditure (after education and Medicaid); more than $40 billion a year is spent on maintaining and running the more than 1,400 prisons nationwide.
During the budget crises of the last couple of years, state political figures have begun realizing just how devastating the prison boom has been. They are also realizing that it is almost impossible to solve their budget crises without reducing the dollars heading into corrections. "The 'get tough' policies of the 1980s come with a high fiscal cost," says Marc Mauer of the Washington-based Sentencing Project think tank. "And policy-makers are increasingly aware of this. If they need to balance state budgets, corrections represents a good source of budget cuts."
Paradoxically, with the fiscal crises come opportunities: to find more cost-effective ways to reduce crime than the "lock 'em up at all costs" strategy of the recent past; to rethink drug-sentencing policies that have placed hundreds of thousands of nonviolent addicts behind bars; to rethink stiff mandatory and habitual-offender laws that have swelled the numbers of inmates serving inordinately long sentences; to reorder spending priorities so that more people are diverted away from prison and, for those who are still imprisoned, to direct more money toward services preparing them for release. If this can be done, two goals will be achieved at once: Crime-fighting dollars will be spent in a more cost-effective way and the prison system will be shrunk without an unwelcome spike in crime or a politically irresistible public reaction against reform.
Unfortunately, not everyone is taking the long-term view. Over the past couple of years, as their budgets diminished, many states instead decided to cut costs the quick and easy way: through the early release of prisoners. Oklahoma, Montana, Arkansas and Kentucky have each released hundreds of inmates. In December 2002, Kentucky granted early release to 567 inmates; in January another 328 prisoners walked free early. In Arkansas, the state parole board authorized the early release of as many as 521 inmates. For the most part, those released early were convicts whose crimes were not violent and who were within a few months of their release dates. Meanwhile, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Idaho, Nebraska and Georgia are among the states publicly debating whether to follow such a policy.
But if early release seems a welcome reversal of lock-'em-up policies, it can backfire in the absence of transition programs. For these same states have also been pinching pennies on prerelease programs, drug-treatment and life-skills classes, ignoring the lifelong economic and social handicaps that a spell behind bars leaves people with.
Lacking programs to help them reintegrate into the community, many of those released from prison swiftly return to crime and to prison. And to a public suspicious of "coddling" criminals, any story of someone released early committing new crimes is likely to confirm suspicions that early release -- and with it any "softening" of the system -- is putting public safety in jeopardy.
It is in Kentucky that the saga of early releases combined with underinvestment in post-prison services has played out most visibly. Always a poor state, Kentucky has been housing low-level felons in county jails for several years as a way to avoid building expensive new prisons. At the same time, the prison population is bursting at the seams because of more and longer sentences being meted out under the tougher sentencing policies of the 1980s and '90s. Twenty years ago, in fiscal year 1983, the state's prison population stood at 5,362; by 1993 it had risen to 10,526. Today, even after hundreds have been let out as a part of the early-release program, 17,328 Kentuckians live behind bars.
When Kentucky's budget, along with those of most other states, began heading south in 2001, the governor looked for creative ways to save. In late 2002, despite the opposition of many legislators and newspaper columnists, the state began letting a large number of these inmates back onto the streets.
The savings were, in the short term, significant. It costs Kentucky an average of $27.51 per day to house a low-level state prisoner in a county jail. With close to 1,000 prisoners set free an average of 90 days before their sentences were up, the early-release program saved cash-strapped Kentucky around $2.5 million at the tail end of 2002 and the first few months of 2003.
But at the same time, no additional resources were activated to help those released readjust to life on the outside. The state Department of Corrections declined to comment for this article, but other sources indicate that those released before their sentences were up were not placed on parole, drug addicts were not mandated into treatment, and no one was given job training or help in finding housing. Indeed, the Reentry Court program in Kentucky, a small pilot program that provided a year of drug treatment to released drug offenders, was discontinued in 2002 due to lack of funding, despite some signs of success.
"They have no post-release programs," says Northern Kentucky University criminology professor and ex-drug convict Stephen Richards, talking about the Kentucky prison system. "Literally, they push you out the door. It doesn't matter how long you've been locked up. ... In Kentucky ... [m]ost are walking out of prison in their prison uniforms, with their numbers on their chest."
Debra Haynes was one of the supposed beneficiaries of early release. On Jan. 17, 2003, as one of the lucky few prisoners who had been placed in a transitional-release program by the state, Haynes was employed folding linens at a hospital in the tiny Kentucky town of Owensburg. A 42-year-old grandmother, she was nearing the end of a drug-related prison sentence. That afternoon, she was met at the hospital gates by a social worker who told her that she was being released early and was free to go home.
"I felt great," Haynes reminisces. "I was ready to get out of there. I phoned my family. My daughter picked me up."
But then things turned sour. Because she was released, Haynes lost her job at the hospital and was given no other work. A couple of months later, she got a job cooking in the café of the 3 J department store. But when the little town's economy slowed down, Haynes was fired. She was still unemployed when interviewed for this article. "Believe me, it's hard," Haynes said with resignation. "When you're a convicted felon, people are not going to hire you. You have to get out and do the best you can and hope and pray somebody will hire you."
Realistically, however, it's unlikely that Haynes' situation, or those of others like her, will improve. To save money, Kentucky hasn't programmed its computers to track whether prisoners released early have been returning to the prison system, and sources in parole services and other agencies confirm that no one is monitoring their progress. But many do end up back behind bars. National recidivism rates, especially for ex-inmates without access to transitional supports, are depressingly high. A 2002 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, based on data from 15 states, reported that 67.5 percent of prisoners released in 1994 had been rearrested within three years and 46.9 percent had been reconvicted. By contrast, those who participate in transitional programs fare much better. According to economist Steve Aos of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonprofit group that has analyzed national recidivism data over several years, drug courts and vocational programs lower recidivism rates by an average of 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Aos concludes that "taxpayers on average get a couple dollars of positive benefits per dollar of costs to run the programs."
With hundreds of thousands of prisoners being released annually, statewide programs that reduce recidivism by 10 percent to 20 percent would ultimately prevent tens of thousands of ex-cons from returning to prison each year. In the long run, investment in such programs would have far greater impacts on correctional costs than haphazard early-release policies like the one of which Haynes was a part.
In Kentucky, however, such arguments don't get much of a hearing. A poor state, its government agencies have never invested heavily in pre- and post-release programming for inmates. And, with budget woes worsening, these agencies are unlikely to reverse course anytime soon. As a result, religious organizations have stepped in. In Louisville, home of the Churchill Downs racetrack and Kentucky's largest city, a fair number of nonprofit, church-affiliated halfway houses and transitional services cater to the thousands of ex-cons who return to the area each year.
"I was a sheriff. The Lord led me out of the police force," says Eric Irvin, a 34-year-old Baptist preacher with a goatee who's dressed in a white suit crisscrossed with thin black lines, a perfectly pressed purple shirt, and purple and black alligator-skin shoes. "I wrestled with God a month about leaving. I said, 'Lord, are you sure it was me?' God told me to leave to run this program, so, on faith, I left. He put me in Frankfort, Kentucky's capital, the next day. I phoned Gov. [Paul] Patton when he was letting all these prisoners out and told him I was the solution."
Irvin receives praise from government officials -- but no government funds. On a shoestring budget he offers life-skills classes, an audience with motivational speakers, help writing résumés and other services to several dozen ex-prisoners. The problem with such programs -- aside from obvious concerns about church-state issues -- is that the state hasn't created adequate linkages so that all those who need these services actually get them. Most returning cons fall through the cracks.
This was particularly true of the early-release cohort, the great majority of whom were not channeled into post-prison programming. Dismas House, which boards prerelease prisoners such as Debra Haynes and post-release prisoners on parole, is the largest such institution in the state, with close to 500 beds, all of them full. Yet its senior staff only managed to identify six convicts who had been released early, including Haynes, and had subsequently utilized Dismas programs. Irvin Transitional Services, Eric Irvin's re-entry program, cannot identify a single client freed under early release. Employees at Hope House, a faith-based halfway house in Louisville catering to drug and alcohol abusers, believe only two of those let out of prison early stayed with them, and only for a short period. And that means hundreds are going back into the community unsupported, and, most likely, back to committing crimes.
Aside from the cost of punishing repeat offenders, there's another price to pay for sloppy prisoner release: It reduces the political will to reform the system more broadly. When it comes to crime and punishment, public perceptions have been at least as crucial in shaping criminal- justice policy as on-the-ground realities. In the 1990s, for example, majorities of those polled routinely told researchers that crime was going up, even when the statistics showed it to be declining. As a result, politicians crafted tough-on-crime legislation such as the "three strikes" law. And so, warns Marc Mauer, "there's a real risk of public backlash" against reforming exorbitant sentencing and prison terms if the first evident steps -- early release -- go awry. "[A]ll it takes is one horrendous crime committed by one of these releasees to set off a storm," he says.
Early this year, Kentucky experienced just such a backlash after several of those released early were charged with new, high-profile crimes. In January, in the little town of Hopkinsville, a releasee named Richard McGregor was charged with raping a young woman. Elsewhere, two others who had been set free early were charged with bank robbery. The sensational press coverage and the subsequent political backlash proved too strong to contain. In February, Patton, under intense pressure from the state legislature, ended the early-release program. Because early release had been poorly implemented, it ended up solidifying the public's support for tough-on-crime policies and made the subject of reform taboo.
This wasted opportunity is a shame because polling data suggest that, in fact, the American public is dissatisfied with the tough arrest and sentencing policies that created such an enormous pool of prisoners. A recent poll carried out by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that 65 percent of Americans favor policies that tackle the root causes of crime, while only 32 percent favor stiffer prison sentences for offenders. (By contrast, nine years ago, only 48 percent favored "root cause" policies.) More dramatically, a resounding 76 percent of those polled supported treatment and community-service programs rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.
Across the country, state legislators have begun to look at alternatives to prison, no longer afraid that such policies will lead to them being labeled soft on crime. In Michigan and, surprisingly, Louisiana (the state with the highest percentage of its population behind bars), legislators have recently reduced the length of mandatory sentences for drug crimes. In Nebraska and Kansas, sentencing commissions have come out in favor of diverting nonviolent offenders into halfway houses. In Alabama, the state's commission has been working to restructure sentencing policies, at least partly as a response to the state's fiscal woes. In New York, where the modern drug wars were born in the early 1970s, the political leadership is also inching its way toward reforming the harsh Rockefeller drug laws. And in Texas, one of the most fervently lock-'em-up states, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill in June mandating drug-treatment plans for first-time nonviolent drug offenders.
Taken as a whole, these reforms are sowing the seeds of a dramatic move away from our current policies of excessive incarceration. And that could be good for rehabilitating criminals and for state budgets down the road. But such a move won't happen at all if the costs of kinder, gentler prison systems are crime-ridden communities or a public that perceives its politicians as having put its safety at risk to save a few dollars. It is a lesson Kentucky, in trying to reform its system on the cheap, learned the hard way.