Monday, February 2, 2009

Prisoners We Can't Pay For

by Diane Dimond

Everyone knows the economy is on the skids.

Wall Street certainly feels it. Corporations continue to cut jobs. Mom and Pop businesses struggle to stay open. And state and local governments are faced with the cold hard reality that there's just not enough money to go around.

Here's the really scary part. Among the budget-cutting targets are those used to run America's jails and penitentiaries. The situation leaves policy makers little choice but to let some people currently in prison out of prison before they've served their sentences.

This is not good news for the rest of us.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, has found crime and justice problems in real life are much more difficult to solve than in the movies. With his state s
taring at a 42 billion dollar deficit,
Schwarzenegger wants to grant early release to what he calls "petty criminals"—some 15,000 of them over the next year or so. Also, the Governator wants to eliminate parole for all offenders not convicted of violent or sex-related crimes. Schwarzenegger figures that would cut parole costs for about 70 thousand ex-cons. Nevermind that they would be back on the street with little or no supervision.

This type scenario is also under consideration or already in the works in several states.

Virginia's Governor wants to grant early release to about a thousand inmates. The Governor of New York wants 1,600 inmates to get out early and he's called for re-vamping strict 1960-era drug laws to ease the number of people who get locked up in the future. In Kentucky, even some murderers and other violent offenders are among the nearly 2,000 prisoners getting out early.

Naturally, any budget that reaches into the billions is going to be a prime target for possible spending cuts. And, here in America we spend about 60 billion dollars each year to manage the criminals we lock up.

But . . . whoa, Nellie! Can we stop and think about this for a minute?

Is it really a good idea to let loose criminals without a supportive parole or rehabilitation system? We're already a society struggling not to sink into a full-blown depression and the crime rate is already up in some important categories. Is it really the time to put thousands more unemployed people on the street, ex-cons who may very well return to crime if they—like countless others without criminal records—can't find work? And they will certainly further strain our already overloaded unemployment system?

Let's speak in general terms since not everyone in prison is a hardened career criminal. Generally speaking, these people are not like you and me. They often lack empathy and don't care about the pain their actions inflict on others. They don't see that working for a living is an honorable thing. Getting an education is often not of interest to them. They exist unable to control their own impulses, stealing what isn't theirs as if they are entitled. They take drugs, other citizens' possessions, children's innocence and sometimes they take people's lives.

Thomas Sneddon currently heads the National District Attorneys Association and was in the proprietorial trenches for decades as the D.A. in Santa Barbara, California. He cautions us to put it all in perspective.

The prisoner who gets out early today, he says, "may be a lot more dangerous to the public that their one charge indicates." As a defendant, he or she may have pleaded to the lesser of a half-dozen serious charges. Rewarding them with early release sends the wrong message.

Sneddon believes there are some prisoners who could be released safely into the populations, "But not the wholesale way that's being discussed now." And he makes a dire prediction about his home state Governor's early release plan.

"They'll re-offend. They won't take this as the gift it is. If you release 15,000 of them in California, I'll bet 10 thousand of them will be back in lock-up within two years." It's a terrible cycle of wasted lives and wasted taxpayers' money.

I was glad to read this quote from Michael Thompson, the director of the Council of State Government's Justice Center, a group which is working hard to figure out ways to curb prison population while keeping the public safe:

"There's an unprecedented level of interest in this kind of thinking," Thompson said. "It's a combination of fiscal pressure and a certain fatigue of doing the same thing as twenty years ago and getting the same return."

And that's the rub, isn't it? The number of incarcerated people in America keeps going up every year, costing us more and more money. And when they get out of prison many of them are still drains on society.

There's got to be a better way. I wish someone would figure it out—and soon.


katfish said...

Great post Diane,
Sad and scary situation. Another scary issue is some areas don't even have the budget to investigate homicides. I hope it's ok to post this link, I saw this the other day, think it's relevant:

As if things aren't bad enough!

Anonymous said...

When I was a patrolman in the mid-1980's here in Houston, they did a release of prisoners here in Texas. For several weeks, all we heard dropping on the radios were calls about Agg Robberies taking place. It got real busy.

Leah said...

This is a totally insane idea. Besides all that has been said already, the job market is at its worst. How are these parolees supposed to survive right now if they are let out??

A Voice of Sanity said...

Tommy Chong got nine months and a $20,000 fine for selling pot pipes by mail. IIRC, this case cost the government $12 million to investigate and prosecute. I also suspect the nine months in prison cost the taxpayers more than $20,000. But this all makes perfect sense, right?

FleaStiff said...

Thugs and thieves remain thugs and thieves when they are in prison and they remain thugs and thieves when they out of prison.
Some of them are insulted by the notion, some are not.
I doubt unsupervised parole is much different than an overly bloated system wherein parole supervision is a minimal rubber stamping of a file.
Its time to disband the price-support and anti-competition network for drug dealers! Send those cops back to work on REAL crimes.

Robin Sax said...

Great post. So true Tom Sneddon's words and theory. Criminals get released early for charges that were already PLEAD down. Not a lot of justice out there in our justice system!