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Learning from prison cuts in other states

(Originally published Feb. 3, 2011)

When Judge Steven Alm was appointed to a Honolulu felony court in 2004, it didn’t take long before the new jurist identified what he considered a major flaw in the system: Offenders on probation repeatedly flouted simple rules without sanction, until a-dozen-or-so accumulated violations sent them to state prison for long and costly punishment based on the sentence for their original crime.

“I said, ‘This is a crazy way to try to change anybody’s behavior,’” said Alm, a veteran prosecutor and former U.S. attorney. “We had 45 percent of offenders failing their drug tests – and that’s with a month’s notice they were going to be tested. Judges would say, ‘You really want me to send someone to state prison for 10 or 15 years for two positive drug tests?’ But there was nothing in between.”

Within months Alm had launched a unique quick-sanction pilot aimed at keeping probation violators out of prison, saving taxpayer dollars and nipping new offenses in the bud. The inexpensive zero-tolerance program, which relies on short, immediate jail terms for rule breakers, has posted results that some are calling extraordinary. A controlled study found that participants served or were sentenced to 48 percent fewer days than the control group, and that they were 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime.

“It was mind-blowing,” said Alm of the program now known as HOPE. “And we started with no budget at all.”

The program is now hailed as a ray of light when, amid a moribund national economy, corrections spending is the second fastest-growing item in state budgets – trailing only Medicaid, according to the Pew Center on the States.

It’s ballooned from an $11 billion annual expenditure to more than $50 billion in two decades, with one out of every 100 adults behind bars.

And as states struggle with fiscal crises, they are looking for alternatives to filling $30,000-a-year prison beds. Projects like Hawaii HOPE, or like an initiative in Texas that added thousands of drug treatment beds, or like sentencing reform in South Carolina are getting renewed attention from lawmakers, corrections officials, criminal justice activists and business leaders.

While some lawmakers contend that Michigan’s prisons have excessively high labor and health care costs, experts say state-by-state comparisons are difficult and that short-term savings are limited. They say long-term solutions to controlling prison costs will require alternatives to incarceration and anti-recidivism efforts that not only reduce the prison population but mean fewer victims of crime.

Many argue that so-called community corrections efforts aimed at helping offenders with the root causes of crime also have the potential to improve public safety outcomes and deter future offenses.

Michigan’s new chief executive, Gov. Rick Snyder, said in December that he’s launched a national search for a new director for the state’s Department of Corrections.

There is progress to build upon: Michigan has been lauded as among the states achieving the greatest declines in prison populations in recent years. The number of inmates is down by more than 7,000 from a 2007 peak – largely through sentencing reform and a successful prisoner re-entry initiative – and staffing is down by about 1,000 in the same time period.

Still, the Corrections Department, with an annual budget nearing $2 billion, consumes one-quarter of the annual General Fund budget. As the Center for Michigan reported last year, the state continues to devote more of its budget to corrections than other Great Lakes region states and most of the rest of the nation, no matter which metrics are used, according to recent studies by the National Association of State Budget Officers, the Pew Charitable Trusts and other non-profit organizations.

Building on existing alternatives to incarceration and finding others is likely to be a key focus for any new director in Michigan. Here’s a look at existing research and tools the new corrections chief may want to develop, based on what’s working – and what’s not — nationwide.

Prison a failed policy

After a three-decade prison-building binge, fueled by “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” ideology, researchers and corrections industry insiders are conceding that building more penal institutions is an ineffective approach to public safety.

“When rehabilitation was rejected back in the 1970s, the resources were redirected to building prisons,” said William D. Burrell, a New Jersey-based consultant who served 19 years as head of probation services for that state’s court system.

“Now we are spending an extraordinary amount of money to lock people up for extended periods of time, and doing very little if anything with them while they are locked up to address the factors that caused them to commit crimes in the first place (so) we’re getting horrible results,” Burrell said. “Now the fiscal crisis has accelerated willingness to take a look at how we do things.”

Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States, agreed.

“There is an understanding now that prisons just can’t get a blank check anymore,” said Gelb. “Even if we could afford it, it’s not the best way to get the taxpayer a better public safety return on their dollars.”

Justice reinvestment

Organizations like Pew, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Council of State Governments (CSG) are working with state corrections departments to evaluate these root causes and design solutions. Known as ‘justice reinvestment,’ the strategy “is a process,” said Marshal Clement, director of the Justice Reinvestment project at the CSG. “It’s an approach that states – and some cities – are using to identify the causes of the growth they are seeing. By pinpointing those drivers, you can put targeted programs in place to reduce them.”

The four principles of justice reinvestment include focusing on likely re-offenders; using proven, scientific and measurable programs; more effective community supervision policies and what are known as “place-based strategies.”

For example, Clement said, “justice mapping” takes a look at where prison inmates come from and where they head when they’re released. When officials note big concentrations of offenders in certain neighborhoods or zip codes, they can consider moving probation offices closer to these high-risk areas. Such community-based supervision helps probation officers keep closer ties to offenders and their social circles, and it helps probationers who otherwise might face transportation hurdles keep from racking up violations based on missed appointments or skipped drug tests.

“We know that out of a three-year period, two-thirds of re-offenses are going to occur within the first year,” said Clement. “In these satellite offices, the probation supervisor is better situated to be aware of the conditions and influences in the neighborhood, and to help offenders find resources.”

Meanwhile, with more than 4.3 million people in the United States on probation after being convicted of a crime, according to U.S. Justice Department’s 2008 statistics, resources aimed at that population must be eked out pragmatically, too.

Part of justice reinvestment involves creating a profile for each offender using risk-assessment tools administered by probation officers and other professionals. Depending on factors like an offender’s age at first arrest, education, drug history, education and employment history and post-prison living situation, probationers can be sorted into various risk categories and addressed accordingly.

“With many low-risk probationers, we could probably do nothing and they would be fine,: said Alison Shames, associate director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice in New York. :The tools help judges, probation officers and prisons figure out how to manage their caseloads.”

For instance, she said, an offender with poor employment prospects and a substance abuse problem might – as a result of the risk assessment tool – be diverted into a job skills program and a drug treatment course.

“We can’t do everything for everyone, but we can try to chip away at the factors that are shown to be predictive of criminal behavior,” said Shames.

Texas turns to treatment

Drug treatment is a large component of many justice reinvestment solutions.
That’s because drugs are a factor for about 80 percent of convicted criminals, said Burrell, the New Jersey consultant. “We’ve been taking the drug problem – which is really a public health problem – and throwing legal solutions at it. And it isn’t working.”

That reality hit home in Texas a few years ago, when legislators took a look at their prison budget forecasts and decided there had to a better way.
State Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Plano) is among those credited with spearheading policy changes that nixed prison building in favor of more treatment for substance abusers, prisoner transition centers and more counseling for offenders.

“My driving impetus?” Madden said. “Going into the 2007 legislative session, we were looking at building 17,000 new prison beds, based on the growth we were seeing and the policies we had in place. I knew we had to look for other ways that were smart, safe, kept our reputation as being tough on crime and yet could control and reduce the prison population.”

Instead of spending $2 billion on new prisons, Texas worked with the CSG on a justice reinvestment analysis and ultimately spent $241 million on diversion programs and treatment centers that gave judges a wider array of sentencing options and addressed risk factors. Some 6,000 new slots in community and residential programs were created.

The state also revisited parole and probation policies, cutting, for example, probation terms for some property and drug offenses from 10 to five years – which still covers offenders during their highest-risk periods but reduces caseloads for supervisors and courts.

Today, Madden said, there are about 10,000 fewer offenders incarcerated than there were in 2007 – and parole revocations (when offenders are sent back for violations like failing drug tests) have been reduced by 2,000 to 3,000 per year.

“We’re doing something effective in the short-term instead of just sending them back to prison,” Madden said.

Swift and certain

That’s also where programs like Hawaii’s HOPE and others like it come in.
Alm, a veteran prosecutor, felt there had to be a cheaper and more effective way to deal with flunked drug tests, missed appointments and other infractions. He wanted to whisk rule breakers straight to local jail for a few days of instant punishment that would reinforce the terms of probation, and he found that under existing law this was doable by using probation modification guidelines – no new legislation required.

Within a few months of ascending the bench, Alm had obtained buy-in from a top probation supervisor, convinced the local U.S. Marshals to apprehend MIA probationers, won the support of the Honolulu police chief and identified a high-risk pool of offenders for a test run.

On October 1, 2004, 34 hard-core violators came to the judge’s courtroom for a “warning hearing” informing them that from now on, they’d be getting jail time for each and every violation. No-shows would be tracked down by marshals and admitted straight to the lock-up; those who turned themselves in would fare better but still serve a few days time. Random drug tests six times a month – to which offenders were summoned by a daily check-in call they must place early each morning – wouldn’t give users time to detox between highs and evade the intent of the tests. Even failure to make that daily telephone call would result in an immediate warrant signed by the judge.

“It’s all about swift and certain punishment,” said Alm.

Six years later, the program supervises 1,700 felons – about 20 percent of those in the jurisdiction – and in a controlled study has posted results that some in the field are calling “extraordinary.” The program has held a couple of picnics to fete successful grads, and Alm says he spends one week out of every month traveling – to venues as far away as Stockholm, Sweden – to discuss the strategy with other jurisdictions desperate to cut corrections costs.

While started with no budget, the program did eventually get an appropriation through the state legislature, about $1.2 million at its peak and since reduced by budget cuts. Of that, $770,000 was spent on drug treatment for HOPE participants. “And we hired two $25,000-a-year clerks to do the urine testing, to free up the time of the probation officers,” said Alm.

Gael Wood, a circuit court judge in rural Franklin County, Mo., heard about HOPE at a conference on outcome-based sentencing and was impressed by the statistics.

“I thought, if the numbers are even half that good, it would be worthwhile,” Wood recalls. “We put a team together and developed a plan.”

This month, Wood gave the warning lecture to the first group of 13 probationers in what’s called MAPS, or Missouri Augmented Probation Supervision, which he’s piloting in his courtroom. To start off fair and square, probationers weren’t to be drug-tested the first few days, but once the check-in process starts, Wood is prepared with sanctions for violators.

“If you don’t show up, we are coming to where you are,” he said. “Depending on the violations, I’m thinking we’ll start out with 48 hours (in jail) and we’ll probably crank it up a little more each time. But I think it’s going to work, and we are really excited.”

And the cost to taxpayers?

“We didn’t have to have the laws changed and we didn’t need any money to start this. Just a different commitment of time on behalf of the judge and staff,” said Wood. “And that is a small price to pay.”

Sentencing reform

Adapting sentencing and release policies is – along with the recidivism-reduction strategies developed through justice reinvestment – another tool states are using to rationalize prison costs, Gelb said.

“Most are going in the direction of giving courts more options – for drug offenders in particular,” Gelb said. About 20 to 25 percent of offenders are convicted for violating drug possession, use or trafficking laws, he noted, but as others have said, up to 80 percent of inmates’ crimes can be traced to some drug connection.

In South Carolina, state prison costs had swelled 500 percent between 1983 and 2009, with the inmate population growing from 9,137 to more than 25,000. But an analysis found that the growth was being driven by prison sentences for low-level felonies, and that a large percentage of admissions were for sentences of less than 18 months. Meanwhile, according to a sentencing reform commission report, a whopping 49 percent of the state’s prison population was behind bars for non-violent offenses.

And the report continued, “The percentage of offenders incarcerated for drug-related offenses has more than tripled. In 1980, there were 473 inmates convicted of drug related offenses – six percent of the total population. In 2009, that number had increased to 4,682 inmates or 20 percent of the population.”

Meanwhile, the state’s parole board was rejecting more than 80 percent of applications, and paroled prisoners represented only 3.5 percent of those released.

At the recommendation of the sentencing commission, the South Carolina Legislature in March approved sweeping reforms, removing mandatory minimum sentences for first-time drug offenders, removing sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine possession convictions, allowing for more home confinement and changing parole eligibility for repeat drug offenders.

It also got tougher on crimes like sex offenses against children, reclassifying certain crimes from non-violent to violent and strengthening penalties.

The bill was signed into law in June, so results aren’t yet available, but it’s projected to save the state more than $400 million over the next five years.

“Sentencing reform is the most politically difficult thing to do,” said Shames of the Vera Institute. “But the idea isn’t to let people off, just change the punishment and identify those who are good candidates for alternatives.

“You’ll see a lot of it in this next legislative session,” she said. “Lawmakers are starting to look at who’s going through those doors.”

Other remedies

While sentencing reform and reducing recidivism are the major thrusts of correction reform, other innovations aimed at getting a better bang for taxpayer bucks are afoot nationwide.

From using high-efficiency light bulbs in prisons to more video hearings, operations costs are getting a second look. But most analysts say those efforts only nibble at costs. Health care costs – especially for a population prone to higher rates of AIDS and other chronic diseases, and an increasingly geriatric prison cohort – are being addressed with medical paroles and experiments at privatizing health care providers, but results are spotty.
Boutique or niche courts that specialize in drunk driving, drug or other classes of offenders – even special courts for military members – are popping up nationwide as judges attempt to innovate.

In Illinois, a once defunct prison was re-opened as Sheridan Correctional Center, specializing in intensive pre-release drug treatment and re-entry programs. Inmates meeting eligibility criteria go to Sheridan voluntarily, and while it costs twice as much to house an inmate there as in Illinois’ general prison population, Sheridan parolees are 30 percent less likely to recidivate and 56 percent are successfully employed on parole.

As in Texas, Kansas, New York and even in Michigan’s prisoner re-entry program, treatment along with punishment is increasingly the purview of corrections officials.

“Offenders, like us, have goals and aspirations and desires for their lives, too,” said Burrell. “We must try to tap into that, to identify how their current behavior prevents them from achieving and how they can be motivated to change.”

Measuring the outcome of cost-cutting measures in Corrections is troublesome because there are no industry-standard metrics that define prison operating efficiency. State-by-state comparisons, even of per-prisoner, per-day costs, are apples-to-oranges, analysts say, because of the variations in how states budget and account for corrections expenses.

Efficiency measures

No one state systems stands out, observers say, for overall efficiency. Rather, researchers point to incremental efforts here and there to streamline or reduce prison costs.

A 2009 report by the Vera Institute of Justice noted a variety of tactics:

• Georgia reduced the number of meals served to inmates to save on labor costs while still providing the same calories to prisoners.

• Maine, which had considered sending inmates out of state to save costs, was swayed against the idea by advocates who contend that prisoners deprived of ties to nearby family and friends would have worse outcomes after incarceration. Instead, Maine identified $168,000 in wasted prescription medications (which were discarded if prisoners failed to line up to receive them), lowered the wattage of some outdoor lighting, switched from oil to all-wood heating boilers and otherwise attacked facility costs.

Still, the Vera Institute report noted, the biggest efficiencies were achieved by states able to close prisons and reduce staff.

“It bears noting, however, that not all states are in a position to take such actions,: the report stated. “Only those that have engaged in policy reforms that lowered their prison populations can take this step.”

Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States, added that internal prison cost-cutting tends to erode counseling, substance abuse treatment and other efforts that are known to prevent recidivism.

“There is some small-fry cost-cutting inside prisons – using low-energy light bulbs, that sort of thing. But there is probably no easier cut (politically) you can make in state government than a program that serves a criminal. And if it’s a program that is working, that is really penny wise and pound foolish.”

Ironically, Gelb said, sometime program cuts have left inmates lacking the very treatment that parole boards require before releasing them. So in cutting services to prisoners, the state ends up housing them longer than necessary in prison, as well as increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

“It’s a double whammy,” Gelb said.

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