Pubdate: Thu, 06 Mar 2003
Source: Daily Journal, The (NJ)
Copyright: 2003 Daily Journal
Author: Ronald Fraser


Gov. James E. McGreevey's projected $5 billion budget deficit is due, in 
part, to the cost of confining 23,100 people in state prisons.

To cut prison costs -- and to avoid the appearance of being soft on crime 
- -- some states are turning to dead-end fixes. Other states, however, are 
counting on alternatives to incarceration to reduce prison costs.

The cost to keep each New Jersey inmate behind bars is $72.88 a day, or 
$26,000 a year. Add in other operating and capital costs and you get a 
prison bill of $975 million a year.

What to do?

Intelligent budget cutting strategies come in three varieties.

Early release: Kentucky' governor gave 567 non-violent inmates an early 
release from prison to ease his budget woes. A similar step that cuts a 
year off of each sentence in New Jersey could save more than $14 million.

Sentencing reform: Michigan's former Republican governor, John Engler, 
signed into law a bill repealing the state's mandatory minimum sentencing 
laws for drug crimes, a step that is already reducing the number of 
first-time offenders going to jail. Sentencing reforms in Washington state 
are expected to lower the inmate count by 1,800 and, in North Carolina, new 
guidelines call for harsh prison terms for violent crimes, but community 
level sentences for non-violent, first time offenders. Connecticut, 
Louisiana, Mississippi and North Dakota have also reduced sentences for 
non-violent and first time offenders by easing their mandatory minimum 
sentencing laws. In New Jersey, every 1,000 offenders not incarcerated for 
a year would cut the budget deficit by $26 million.

Treatment, not jail: Another group of states -- Texas, Oregon, California, 
Idaho and Arkansas -- have expanded the use of drug treatment to greatly 
lower prison costs. Since about 80 percent of prison inmates have serious 
drug and alcohol problems, and states currently spend so little on 
prevention and treatment, this strategy has great potential for reducing 
budget deficits. Each citizen or inmate that completes a state sponsored 
treatment program and then avoids a future run-in with the law could save 
taxpayers at least $38,000.

Leaders in Trenton can continue to raise taxes to incarcerate nonviolent 
offenders. Or they can use smart-sentencing policies, coupled with 
treatment and prevention programs, to cut both costs and taxes.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D.
Burke, Va. 
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