Well, that didn’t take long.
And it certainly didn’t take an Einstein to figure out that our rush to balance budgets by granting early parole or release to thousands of convicts wasn’t such a great idea. It sure isn’t saving the money proponents predicted.
Several states embraced the theory that they could save millions of dollars every year by paring down their prison populations. They’ve quickly come to realize some things just can’t be measured by money. Like public safety – and the threat to the public’s safety.
This was starkly illustrated in Illinois recently when that state’s early release program was labeled, “A big mistake,” by none other than the governor, Patrick Quinn (right). He came to that conclusion after learning some violent convicts were sent home after spending only a few weeks in lockup. More than fifty of the early released were soon accused of new crimes, making more work for law enforcement and prosecutors handling the costly new cases.
So, where exactly was the savings in all that?
The program became a train wreck in Michigan, where 13,541 inmates were granted early release last year. One convict featured in a recent New York Times story is Scott Hankins, a two-time sex-crimes convict accused of molesting young girls he met at church. Some were disabled, and some were reported to be as young as seven. Last year, Hankins’s psychologists declared he met the criteria for a pedophilia diagnosis, but he was released anyway -– well before his 30-year-sentence was up. Prosecutors are now appealing the early releases of Hankins and other sex criminals. Those appeals are time-consuming and expensive for the state.
In Oregon, legislators passed an early-release law last summer. Thousands of convicts became eligible, including Demetrius Payton, 33, a registered sex offender and convicted burglar. His second chance came in October 2009, when he got out of prison early. By January, Payton had been re-arrested for unlawful sexual penetration and felony burglary. He’s now the focus of an anti-crime radio campaign launched by concerned citizens and former prosecutors.
The voice of former District Attorney Tara Lawrence (right) reveals her exasperation with Oregon’s program to let prisoners, like Payton, out early. “Law enforcement caught him,” she says in the ad, “the politicians' new law released him … Law enforcement caught him again. With more than 4,800 prisoners up for early release … this won’t be the last one.”
Oregon has now suspended its early release program.
California, under a federal court order to reduce its prison population, has a plan that’s really gotten bollixed up. Even before the statewide program went into effect, county jails began releasing hundreds of prisoners. At least one, a violent offender named Kevin Peterson, was out for less than 24 hours when he was arrested for attempted rape. Now lawmakers say they never intended for county prisoners to be included in the early release program. Who will pay to fix the problem? The cash-strapped citizens of California, of course.
Several other states are also reassessing just how to juggle early release and public safety. These programs are supposed to target only low-risk and non-violent prisoners. But obviously repeat offenders, violent offenders and sex predators are among those being set free. That’s just not fair to the rest of us.
Regular readers of my posts know I’ve long preached the need for both prison and drug-law reform. Because of our national experiment with tougher drug sentencing, there are too many low-level drug offenders clogging up our courtrooms and prisons. De-criminalizing marijuana would go a long way toward solving today’s massively expensive and over-crowded prison situation. Then we could concentrate on getting the addicted back into mainstream, taxpaying society again. We also need to better re-assimilate and support convicts after they’ve served their time so they don’t come back. Those diagnosed as truly criminally insane need specialized handling. And those who simply don’t respond to rehabilitation? We need to find ways for them to pay their own way in the system through prison work projects.
But for now we need to struggle through this ill-fated idea of opening prison doors and allowing convicts to get out early. There’s got to be a better, safer way to try to balance budgets.
I suggest state officials take a deep breath and study what’s happened in Colorado. Early on officials there figured they could save $19 million with the early release of some 2,600 prisoners. Sounded like a great idea. But they took the time to actually study individual cases and realized that, in good conscience and with public safety top of mind, they could only justify releasing a mere 264 convicts.
It’s okay to admit a mistake. In fact, oftentimes it’s the smartest thing we can do.