Wednesday, June 09, 2010

EDITORIAL>>Prison reform long overdue

The tenth time may be a charm. We have not been counting, but there must have been at least that many resolutions by state leaders to reverse the steady climb in the number of state prisoners and in the mushrooming cost of keeping them.

But Gov. Mike Beebe and a few other state leaders, notably the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, want another study in the hope that knowledgeable people this time can offer a solution that will stick. We know already that they will have a solution. The question is whether it is a politically salable solution.

The Pew Center on the States will do the work. Four years ago, it started its Public Safety Performance Project, which helps states deal with sentencing and correctional practices that have sent prison costs out of control. Arkansas is not alone, although its trend is one of the country’s worst.

Beebe has a record of accomplishing what he sets out to do, so maybe this time really will be a charm.

The problem started 35 years ago when Arkansas, like many states, decided to get tough on crime, which at the time was actually going down slightly owing to demographic changes. The crime rate tends to go up and down, depending upon whether the number of men between the crime-prone ages of 15 and 26 is rising or declining.

The legislature imposed a new set of mandatory sentences and stacked them for third and greater offenses. People stayed in prison longer and longer and the population grew. Over the succeeding two decades, prison officials projected bigger and bigger populations and the need for more and more prisons, at greater and greater cost to the taxpayers.

Governors and a few legislative leaders from time to time resolved to reform the sentencing standards to stem the growth, but the impulse to do just the opposite was always ungovernable. At every session the legislature found more offenses that needed to be criminalized with harsh sentences. Prison construction and expansion of the staff ran apace, although never fast enough to keep up with the growth in inmates. Prisoners backed up in county and city jails awaiting openings in the prisons or the completion of new housing. The police and the courts delayed trials and sentencing because there was no room either in the jails.

That’s where we’ve been. Gov. Mike Huckabee, soon after the turn of the last decade, vowed to do something about it, maybe diverting drug and other nonviolent offenders into treatment and community programs. But he never offered a plan. It was too politically risky. Who wants to be known as being soft on criminals? The legislature passed a couple of minor bills that helped in a small way.

Over the past 20 years, the prison population in Arkansas has more than doubled so that it now approaches 16,000. That’s a larger population than each of 25 Arkansas counties. Twenty years ago, the state spent $45 million a year operating the prisons — that didn’t include construction — and now it runs about $350 million a year. Then it consumed 3 percent of the state’s general revenues, now it eats up 8 percent of a much larger budget. That comes largely at the expense of education.

The trend is not improving. Last year alone, the number of prisoners in state custody rose by 3.1 percent, the eighth-largest percentage increase in the country. It is popular to say that such spending growth is not sustainable, but of course it is. Other services that we value even more, like education, will just have to suffer or else we will raise taxes.

It is common to look upon corrections as a tradeoff. You can pay for safety or you can pay for good education, but you can’t have both without paying the extra taxes for them. But it is not proven that mighty prisons make us much safer. There are states and nations that treat offenders more flexibly and have much smaller incidence of violent crime. Still, that is a hard sell to a legislator who worries about being called a coddler at the next election.

The Pew Center may show us how to do that, and Beebe may be able to work his political magic and get it done. He said the other day that his most important job is to reform the government so that when he leaves it (in January 2015, we presume) the path for his successors will not be uphill. Here is a good test for his resolve.