A few years ago, Kansas lawmakers decided to shake up the state's corrections budget. They poured millions of dollars into community programs intended to rehabilitate offenders, help them find jobs and keep them out of prison. The changes, passed in 2007, reaped almost immediate awards.
Overall recidivism rates in the state declined. The number of parolees who violated the terms of their release plummeted. Kansas was able to postpone construction of new prisons and, last year, lawmakers actually closed four prison facilities. With a push from U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, Congress soon funded a new national grant program patterned after what the state had accomplished.
The recession, however, has hit Kansas' corrections budget hard. Now, budget cuts are threatening to undo the progress that generated national acclaim for the state just a few short years ago. Kansas lawmakers have slashed funding for substance-abuse treatment slots at the heart of the state's community corrections program. Group living facilities for offenders have closed. And, this year, the corrections budget included a noticeable new line item: One of the prisons shuttered last year will re-open, driven in part by an uptick in the number of people who break the conditions of their release, such as missing an appointment with a probation officer or testing positive for drugs.
The recession, and the drain it's put on state budgets, has produced similar quandaries in many of the 28 legislatures that have wrapped up their sessions for 2010. The trend in corrections this year is much the same as it was in 2009 - the first year in a long time that state spending on prisons actually went down. Lawmakers are still searching for savings anywhere they can find them.
As cuts have become the norm, corrections directors are being forced to choose among a variety of difficult choices as they try to stay within the budget limits lawmakers have given them. Among the most common moves: laying off or furloughing workers, double-bunking prisoners in overcrowded facilities and eliminating educational or substance-abuse programs that inmates attend while behind bars.
In many cases, corrections officials say, the budget reductions can be enormously counterproductive. An unbalanced ratio of prisoners to guards, for example, can lead to dangerous conditions for correctional officers and inmates alike. Eliminating treatment slots can make inmates more likely to return to crime once they leave prison.
In Kansas, the bad economy isn't just resulting in budget cuts for corrections. The tough job market also is intensifying the strain on those released from prison - which can increase the chances that some will return to crime. Already, the state finds itself 120 prisoners over capacity. "We don't have the programs and services in place in order to keep these people from being returned to prison," says Bill Miskell, a spokesman with the state corrections department.
It's not that Kansas lawmakers don't value what they accomplished in 2007 or don't strive to keep it up, Miskell stresses. It's that budget shortfalls in Kansas have become so severe that they are touching all operations of state government - even those with proven results. "The money simply doesn't exist to begin to restore those programs," Miskell says.
The same is true in Oklahoma. "We have no drug treatment programs at medium security or above (facilities)," says Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. "We eliminated all sex offender treatment, even though it was mandated by statute. We have reduced our staffing to below 75 percent of what is authorized."
More than most states, Oklahoma is an example in austerity. The Department of Corrections has absorbed a 10-percent cut in the current fiscal year, and Jones is bracing for additional cuts of up to 7.5 percent for the fiscal year that begins in July. What other states only now are slashing from their prison budgets, Jones says, Oklahoma cut years ago. It is one of very few states, for example, to double-bunk its death-row inmates, and even the tiny portion of the corrections budget that pays for inmate programs - as opposed to employee salaries and other operational costs - has been cut by 50 percent, according to Jones.
In New Jersey, which has among the largest budget deficits in the nation, the head of the state corrections department recently outlined the steps he would have to take to make ends meet. The cuts range from more double-bunking to the most mundane details of daily prison life: Inmates' work boots will be replaced by cheaper sneakers.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, are realizing that some prison budget cuts they have approved can be counterproductive from a political point of view. California, Illinois and Oregon each have tried to thin their prison populations - and cut costs - by allowing thousands of inmates to shave time off their sentences through earned-time credits and other forms of accelerated release. But lawmakers in all three states came under intense political pressure this year amid a public outcry over the releases, which were portrayed as a threat to public safety. Illinois and Oregon put a stop to the releases, and California is likely to do so soon.
Trying to slow prison growth
Not all states are cutting prison spending. Some are trying to prevent funding reductions to programs they recognize can help keep the prison population, and taxpayer costs, down. In Texas - which, like Kansas, shifted resources from prison beds to rehabilitation slots in 2007 - legislative leaders have exempted inmate treatment programs from planned budget cuts, The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this month.
Other states are hoping to replicate the success that Kansas has seen by reducing the number of people who return to prison each year. In New Hampshire, for example, lawmakers have sent Governor John Lynch a bill that would emulate the general outlines of Kansas' 2007 reforms by investing more in substance abuse and mental health treatment. Lynch supports the bill.
Some states have passed sentencing changes that aim to reduce the number of people sent to prison in the first place. Colorado reduced criminal penalties for possession and use of certain drugs, while increasing penalties for more serious criminals who sell drugs to minors. The savings wrought from an expected decline in prisoners will be applied to substance-abuse treatment. The move should allow the state "to get ahead of the game" by tackling recidivism, says Claire Levy, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
South Carolina's state Senate unanimously passed a sentencing reform bill that, like Colorado, strikes a compromise by reducing criminal penalties for some low-level offenders while increasing punishment for violent offenses. The measure, which is backed by Republican Governor Mark Sanford and is awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives, would decrease the prison population and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years.
Changes like those in Colorado, New Hampshire and South Carolina are longer-term fixes to a problem that is being addressed in the short term by deep spending cuts - as many corrections directors, prison guards and parole officers can attest. But they nevertheless can have a real impact on prison populations and budgets in the future.