Wednesday, January 05, 2011

EDITORIAL >Reforming our prisons

The legislature will convene next week with a giant contingent of freshmen lawmakers, most of them promising to be scourges of government spending. Something called the Arkansas Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections gave them a blueprint yesterday for tackling government waste. It made a modest set of proposals for halting the skyrocketing growth of the prison population.  

Those recommendations could have been much stronger, but most of the members of the Working Group are politicians and they genuflected to the political realities. The more far-reaching reforms will require legislation, and not many legislators will vote for something that might get them tagged by an opponent as being “soft on crime.” 

That is exactly how Arkansas got into its current mess—one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the country, a mushrooming cost to taxpayers and a public that is no safer than the rest of the country. This year, Arkansas is spending $350 million to run its prisons, and it needs to build more prisons and hire more guards to meet the anticipated growth. The Pew Center on the States, which studied the Arkansas system, projects that the costs will rise by $1.1 billion this decade. The share of each Arkansas tax dollar that is spent on corrections has nearly tripled over the past 20 years. 

We remember how it got started. It was 1977 and there was national alarm over the rising crime rate. The crime rate tends to rise and decline in proportion to the number of men in the crime-prone age group, 16 to 24. It was rising then. A young representative named Bobby Glover of Carlisle led a successful campaign to stiffen the state’s sentencing laws. The Correction Department warned that the prison population would expand rapidly with more rigid sentences and that the legislature would need to appropriate lots more money to build new prisons and operate them. But the prospect of a safer public seemed to be worth the cost. 

At every biennial session, the legislature stiffened laws further, requiring mandatory sentences for repeat offenders and adopting every fad, like “three strikes and you’re out.” Eventually, early parole for good behavior was pretty much phased out. The tougher and longer sentences were not just for people who had committed violent crimes but also for every non-violent offense. The epidemic of drug use by young people brought harsher and harsher penalties, but it seemed to make no difference. 

Except on the state budget. Here are the results: In 1977, the state spent $8.1 million on corrections. The inmate population was a little over 2,500. This year, the inmate population, counting those in county jails awaiting a bed in the penitentiary, is soaring toward 17,000 and the state is spending $350 million. Sure, there is some inflation in there and the state’s population has grown a little, but they do not account for that growth. Over that span, the rate of violent and property crimes has fluctuated slightly up and down. 

Fifty-nine percent of the offenders who were convicted and sentenced to prison in Arkansas in 2009 went there for non-violent crimes. 

Everyone who has been a victim of one of those crimes, which now includes just about all of us, knows the frustration, anxiety and sometimes fear that accompanies it, particularly when so few are caught and punished. But we cannot lock up everyone with a crime bent until they have lost the will to cheat and steal, and we must start to balance the social costs of a policy of maximum incarceration. Every dollar spent on imprisoning a man is a theft from our children—their education and health care—and from the rest of law-abiding society.  

The Working Group—15 legislators, judges and law-enforcement and prison officials—suggest that the prisons concentrate on violent and career criminals and be only a way station for the drug abusers, hot-check artists, burglars and other non-violent offenders. It proposes a number of soft steps to get there: greater use of probation, a higher threshold for convicting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana and illegal drugs, a trained professional parole system and liberalized use of parole, paroles for the terminally ill, more drug courts, higher probation and parole fees, greater use of electronic monitoring instead of prison and an array of other reforms. 

It did not recommend rolling back any of the tough sentencing laws of the past three decades, knowing that it would be hard for a legislator to vote to reduce a sentence on even the slightest offense. One such vote makes you a friend of the criminals. But the Working Group calculated that if the legislature and the governor, by executive order, adopted all its recommendations they would save $850 million over the next decade. It wouldn’t lower the current prison costs, but it would hold the present prison population about steady and allow a very modest growth in state spending on corrections.  

Circumstances call for something much bolder, but even this is worthwhile. 

Governor Beebe did not exactly endorse all the recommendations, but he welcomed them and praised the group’s work. Beebe is not celebrated for his boldness but for being safe and practical. He doesn’t take political risks and doesn’t ask the legislature to. But if he can get this small agenda of reform accomplished, taxpayers will be in his debt.