Over the past few years, states have acutely felt the pain of our nation’s economic woes. As some governors cope with revenue shortfalls by raising taxes and others enact deep cuts to education and other services, a silver lining has emerged out of the budget crunches: prison reform.
Those advocating for prison reform are not calling on states to shut down all penitentiaries and allow murderers back on the streets. Rather, the aim is to take a more sensible approach to our criminal justice system. For example, states currently use prison as the standard resort for most nonviolent offenders. Certainly justice demands that crime not go unpunished, but not every offense merits the same response, especially one as expensive to taxpayers as prison.
Over the past 40 years, our nation’s prison population has increased more than 700 percent. As a result, state governments now spend $50 billion every year on its prison budget, while the federal government chips in another $5 billion.
Still, as states face difficult budget situations, more governors from across the political spectrum are taking up the mantle of prison reform:
- Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R): Ohio currently faces an $8 billion budget shortfall. As a result, newly-elected Gov. Kasich called reforming Ohio’s prison system “low-hanging fruit” that could help close the deficit. “Do you think we should put a person, a check kiter or someone who’s been put in prison for eight months, in the state pen[itentiary]?” Kasich told reporters during a December press conference. “Do you know what it costs to put somebody in the state pen? We approach – I’ve gotta throw a number out and I’ll get in trouble – I’ve been told 30-40 percent of our prisoners are in the state pen for less than a year. Why didn’t we fix that? [...] To me, that’s low-hanging fruit. [...] I think it makes total sense and it would save us money.”
- Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R): Tasked with closing a $3.6 billion budget deficit, Gov. Scott is targeting the state’s oversized prison system for cuts. The Florida Independent notes that his transition team endorsed “initiatives that will keep prison populations low by focusing on rehabilitating prisoners and making it easier for them to get jobs and return to normal lives, which reduces recidivism. That reduces the cost of caring for prisoners, and the need to build new prisons.” In total, Scott has called for $1 billion to be cut from the state Department of Corrections budget.
- Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R): In his inaugural address, Gov. Deal put criminal justice reform at the top of his agenda for the state. He decried the fact “one out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control,” costing the state $3 million per day. In part because of the Peach State’s $1 billion budget deficit, Deal called for structural changes in the state’s justice system, including providing prison alternatives to non-violent offenders, such as “Day Reporting Centers, Drug, DUI and Mental Health Courts and expanded probation and treatment options.” Change is coming quickly – this spring, Georgia plans to close Metro State Prison, a move that will save $19 million.
- California Gov. Jerry Brown (D): Facing a $25 billion budget shortfall, California is in one of the most precarious financial situations of any state. One of the solutions proposed by Gov. Brown is to implement major reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, including sending non-violent offenders and strengthening county rehabilitation programs. In total, Brown’s proposed changes will save the state over $1.6 billion.
- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R): Mississippi’s release last month of the Scott sisters generated national headlines because their freedom was contingent on Gladys Scott donating a kidney to the her ailing sister Jamie. One of the principle reasons Barbour chose to suspend their life sentences was due to the $200,000 price tag Mississippi taxpayers had to foot in order to maintain Jamie’s daily dialysis. Prior to their release, the Scott sisters had been serving dual life sentences for a 1993 armed robbery that netted the two women $11. Their case had been highlighted by civil rights groups like the NAACP, who criticized the unduly harsh sentences.
Prison reform is a rare area of public policy that cuts through the liberal-conservative divide. When fewer non-violent offenders are sent to prison, conservatives cheer at the taxpayer savings and liberals smile at a more compassionate justice system. It’s no coincidence that a bipartisan group of governors is currently taking up the cause of prison reform. Though budget crunches have forced many states to make difficult cuts, it is heartening that many governors are using the opportunity to take a smarter approach on criminal justice.