At Least 26 States Spend Less on Prisons

(Updated 1 p.m. EDT, Aug. 14, 2009; see Editor's Note below)

A $1 billion cost-cutting plan announced last week by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) will translate into layoffs for more than a thousand state prison workers.

In Oregon, a voter-approved plan to hand longer prison sentences to those who commit property crimes was delayed by state lawmakers who said they could not pay for it.

Tennessee's department of corrections has sought to save money by offering inmates less milk and meat in their daily meals.

And in Kansas - which has received national attention in recent years for shifting resources from locking up prisoners to rehabilitating them - the state eliminated 85 percent of the slots in its substance-abuse treatment program for inmates, citing budget constraints.

The national recession is taking its toll on what had been one of the fastest-growing areas of state government spending: prisons. Even though state corrections budgets have ballooned in the past two decades amid a surging U.S. prison population, at least 26 states slashed funding for prisons this year, according to a new survey by the nonpartisan Vera Institute of Justice, a research organization based in New York. Thirty-seven states responded to the survey , paid for by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.

Seven states - Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska and Washington - cut funding for corrections by more than 10 percent from last year's levels, according to the study. Kansas saw the biggest recorded decrease in state funding, at 22 percent. The survey did not take into account federal stimulus money, which allowed some states to blunt the impact of their budget cuts.

Corrections is the fifth-largest area of state spending after Medicaid, secondary education, higher education and transportation. State spending on prisons has swelled as the nation's jail and prison population has climbed to 2.3 million people, or about one in every 100 adults. But grim budget realities are forcing state lawmakers' hand.

According to the Vera survey, many states are wringing savings from their correctional systems by trying to reduce the huge operational costs of running prisons - including by laying off workers, freezing their wages or cutting services to inmates. They also are exploring new ways to reduce recidivism and achieve long-term savings, in some cases easing sanctions on "technical violators" who break conditions of their parole and frequently are sent back to prison. Some states, including Colorado and Oregon, are allowing more prisoners to reduce their prison sentences through "earned-time credits" for good behavior and other forms of early release.

Some of the cost-cutting moves - using videoconferencing to avoid physically transporting inmates for court appearances, for example, and cutting back on inmates' meal offerings - have targeted the basics of daily prison life and reaped relatively modest savings. But other changes will save tens of millions of dollars and have not come without political fights.

According to Stateline.org 's annual review of states' legislative sessions , at least seven states - Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Washington - this year decided to close prisons. In some states, those plans touched off resistance among prison unions and in hard-hit communities anxious about losing even more jobs.

New York's prison workers' union earlier this year accused the administration of Gov. David Paterson (D) of creating " the most dangerous conditions ever" for correctional officers by closing 10 prisons and packing inmates into other facilities. In Michigan, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate, Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is trying to avoid closing some prisons - and laying off prison guards - by accepting inmates from California's teeming system. Some state officials have backed the idea of housing detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Early releases also have caused alarm, particularly in California, where a federal panel of three judges last week ordered the state to free more than 40,000 inmates - or about 27 percent of its prison population - within the next two years to ease dangerous overcrowding. Attorney General Jerry Brown (D), who is widely expected to run for governor next year, attacked the decision and could appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The early release of thousands of inmates also is being considered in Illinois.

While some criminal justice advocates contend that early releases and other cost-cutting moves could endanger public safety, others say states have not gone far enough in cutting inmate numbers.

Some advocates say state lawmakers have avoided what they see as the "elephant in the room" - tough sentencing policies that have put many low-level offenders behind bars for longer and been a major factor behind the explosive growth in the nation's prison population since the 1970s, when many of the laws were passed. The federal panel that ruled on California's prison overcrowding cited sentencing laws as a factor behind the Golden State's huge prison population.

While New York this year revised its drug sentencing laws to give judges more discretion to keep offenders out of jail, other high-profile sentencing changes in the states have been far more limited in their scope. Texas, for instance, eliminated life without parole for juveniles, a penalty that currently affects only seven inmates. New Mexico abolished capital punishment, but had only two men on death row when the bill was signed into law in March.

Washington state's legislative session this year was "completely upside down in terms of criminal justice policy," said state Rep. Roger Goodman (D), vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Goodman said lawmakers cut funding for the wrong programs - such as housing and other transitional services that can help ex-inmates stay out of trouble - and refused to make substantial changes to the sentencing policies that he said have put too many nonviolent and drug-addicted people in prison in the first place.

Goodman explained lawmakers' distaste for making sentencing changes this way: "There aren't enough political points to be gained by taking this issue on. There are political points to be gained by attacking it."

While broad changes to criminal sentencing laws remain a tough sell issue in many state capitols, corrections officials are pushing other, less controversial changes to reduce prison populations. Many states have made sick or dying inmates eligible for early parole. Other states, including Florida and Tennessee, have invested more heavily in drug treatment courts and community supervision programs in the hopes of keeping offenders from returning to prison.

"Changing sentences is a very difficult thing to do. And so we've gone around it," Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said during an annual summit of state legislators in Philadelphia last month.