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State legislators seek alternatives to building more prisons

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With swelling prison populations cutting into state budgets, lawmakers are exploring ways to ease overcrowding beyond building expensive new correctional facilities.

Though the construction of prisons continues as states struggle to provide enough beds for those behind bars, legislators increasingly are looking at other ways to free up space and save money, including expanded programs to help prevent offenders from being incarcerated again, earlier release dates for low-risk inmates and sentencing revisions.

Criminal justice analysts point to Kansas and Texas as recent innovators. Both states are putting off building new prisons, focusing instead on rehabilitation and recidivism. At the same time, a new $7.7 billion prison spending plan in California - where overcrowding last year forced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency - has met with skepticism. Critics call the plan "prison expansion, not prison reform" and say the initiative relies on impractical fixes such as shipping inmates out of state.

State spending on prisons surged 10 percent nationally last fiscal year and growing inmate populations played a lead role in those costs, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Corrections trails only education and health care in swallowing state dollars, and experts say lawmakers are responding to the budgetary pressures by trying more cost-effective approaches.

"We're seeing more and more states in different regions and with different political leadership tackling this issue and recognizing that the more they spend on prisons, the less they have to spend on health, education and other priorities," said Adam Gelb, project director of the Public Safety Performance Project.

In February, the project, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, forecast steep increases in incarceration rates and state spending in the next five years unless legislatures enact policy changes.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed into law last month a prison plan that is winning accolades for its creativity. Among other measures, the $4.4 million package provides financial incentives to community correctional systems for reducing prisoner admissions and allows some low-risk inmates to reduce their sentences through education or counseling while behind bars.

Under the plan, the state offers grants to localities for preventing "conditions violations" such as parole or probation infractions - a leading cause of prison overcrowding in Kansas and nationwide. To qualify for the grants, communities must cut recidivism rates by at least 20 percent using a variety of support tactics.

The early-release provision would cut time served by 60 days for some offenders who successfully complete programs that decrease their chances of returning to prison. Several other states, including Michigan, Nevada and Washington, recently announced plans to release some low-risk offenders early through similar initiatives, such as expanded work-release programs.

Expectations are high in Kansas. State Rep. Pat Colloton, a Republican who led the push for the legislation in the House of Representatives, said she expects the plan to allow the state to postpone new prison construction until 2016 - though officials had said expansion would be necessary starting in two years.

In Texas, which houses 153,000 prisoners, the Legislature recently approved a plan that lawmakers have characterized as one of the most significant changes in corrections in a decade. The package, part of the state budget awaiting Republican Gov. Rick Perry's approval, would divert thousands of inmates from prison to rehabilitation facilities, where beds would free up twice a year as offenders get help and re-enter society. Notably, the focus on rehabilitation would put off construction of costly new prisons.

The plan includes a new 500-bed treatment facility for those incarcerated for driving while intoxicated - offenders who often have substance-abuse problems but receive no rehabilitation and face stiff sentences without the possibility of parole, according to one state Senate aide.

"We have changed the course of the ship substantially in the state of Texas," said state Rep. Jerry Madden, a Republican and chairman of the House Corrections Committee and an engineer of the prison plan.

In California, the only state with a larger prison system than Texas, Schwarzenegger signed a plan this month that calls for the construction of 53,000 new beds, with rehabilitation services to accompany the expansion.

Analysts say the plan has the potential to overhaul the state's prison system by providing inmates new opportunities for education, job training and counseling. But they note that funding for the initiative's rehabilitation services is far from guaranteed because the state has not yet approved its budget, and many in the corrections community are skeptical that lawmakers will follow through on their promises.

"It's purely prison expansion. It's just more business as usual," said Joe Baumann, a state corrections officer who has worked for 20 years at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. "The thing that everybody misses is the incarceration rate per 100,000 people."

Meanwhile, other states are revisiting their sentencing policies. Nevada, facing an explosion in its prison population, recently reinstated a commission - dormant since 2000 - that will make recommendations on changing sentencing laws to help ease overcrowding.

At least 22 states revised their sentencing laws between 2004 and 2006 to ease prison overcrowding, according to a study by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based organization that advocates for policy changes.

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