States Are Rethinking Mandatory Minimums

Budget deficits are causing some states to reevaluate mandatory minimum sentencing policies. Over the past few decades, mandatory minimums were enacted in part for deterrence, but they have not necessarily deterred criminal behavior. Instead the policies appear to have produced many unintended consequences, one of which is a dramatic and unsustainable increase in criminal justice spending. At the federal level, partly due to mandatory minimums, the prison population has grown from 24,000 in 1980 to 209,000 today.

Community supervision alternatives to incarceration are often more effective and substantially cheaper than mandatory incarceration, and states that have eschewed mandatory minimum sentencing have seen some success in limiting costs. Texas is a good example. In Texas, the price of parole is $3 a day per offender, while the price of incarceration $79 per day per offender. Texas has focused its limited resources on diverting nonviolent offenders from incarceration. The state’s crime rate is now the lowest it has been since 1973, and the prison population has declined to the point that Texas was able to shut down a prison outside of Houston in 2011. These savings would have been impossible if mandatory sentences had forced Texas judges to incarcerate offenders who clearly benefited more from other – cheaper — alternatives to prison. Mandatory minimums, had they been used more extensively in Texas, likely would have yielded negative results for public safety, for offenders, and for taxpayers.

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The Hidden Costs of Prison

In a new report, the Vera Institute suggests that the actual cost of prisons is, on average, fourteen percent higher than a typical state budget reveals. Vera surveyed 40 states during the 2010 fiscal year, and determined that in six states, including Texas, the actual cost of prisons is 20-34 percent higher than the state’s budget identifies. To reach this conclusion, Vera factored in several costs that aren’t often put into the corrections budget: state contributions to healthcare and pensions of employees who work within the prison system, capital costs (to construct and renovate prisons), and hospital and other healthcare costs for prisoners. According to Vera, when these costs are included, the actual cost of corrections among the 40 states surveyed is $5.4 billion more than the $33.4 billion claimed in corrections budgets.

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Harris County Keeping Prisoners In-House; Saving Millions

According to the Houston Chronicle, there has been a 31 percent decline in the Harris County jail population since 2008 that will allow for the County to house all of its own inmates in its own facilities for the first time in five years.

The sharp drop in the jail population is due, in large part, to Harris County’s efforts to stop jailing as many misdemeanants and offenders found with trace amounts of drugs. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos made the decision to stop handing down felony indictments to those caught with trace amounts of drugs or with paraphernalia. As a result, there has been a 56 percent decrease in case filings for drugs of less than one gram, or a decline of almost 5,000 cases.

Right-sizing jail populations in Harris County will save taxpayers millions. Over the last two years, the cost of sending prisoners to other states due to overpopulation in Harris County jails was $31 million dollars, but now the exportation of both prisoners and taxpayer dollars can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has shown that jail time for low-level drug possession offenders does not give taxpayers the best bang for their buck. The price of housing and feeding low-risk offenders is much more expensive than probation or rehabilitation programs, which have proved to be more effective than jail time in these cases. A sensible approach to law enforcement when dealing with low-level drug possession and other minor offenses can provide significant savings for taxpayers and result in a more effective criminal justice system.

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Oklahoma Tackles Criminal Justice Reform

For seven months, experts in Oklahoma have studied, evaluated, debated and reimagined criminal justice in that state.

The result of their work is a report released this month that is aimed at reducing violent crime, providing better post-release supervision, and controlling expensive prison growth.

The experts came together under the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, a coalition of legislators (Republican House Speaker Kris Steele co-chaired the group) and private sector leaders, which was formed in partnership with the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Center on the States.

Proposals from the study include requiring post-release supervision for felony offenders, increased substance abuse treatment for drug offenders in lieu of long prison sentences, and earned-time credits for offenders.  The report noted the usefulness of risk assessments and the low rates at which those assessments are currently used in Oklahoma. On the front end, the group suggested hot-spot policing to better combat and respond to crime.

The projected result would be cost-savings for Oklahoma taxpayers and reduced growth in prison populations, stemming the need for expensive prison construction.

This undertaking was rooted in experience: the Justice Center and Pew led similar efforts in other states, including Texas (which led, in part, to a $2 billion savings for Texas taxpayers). In fact, Representative Steele said the success of the effort in Texas, in conjunction with Right on Crime, played a role in encouraging lawmakers to undertake reform in Oklahoma.

Going forward, the working group will ensure input from all stakeholders, including prosecutors, to ensure that the criminal justice reform effort is widely supported and comprehensive.

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Put Your Hands Up and Drop the Maple Syrup!

According to the Heritage Foundation, a bill pending before the U.S. Senate, the “Maple Agriculture Protection and Law Enforcement Act of 2011,” or the “MAPLE Act,” would make it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, to knowingly and willfully introduce into state commerce products falsely labeled as maple syrup.

This legislation, which applies to any product purporting to be maple syrup which is less than 66 percent maple sap, is yet another example of overcriminalization.False representations of maple syrup are already combated by fraud actions in civil lawsuits, or a variety of already-available torts, such as false advertising. Duplication of laws, as is the case here, leads to over-prosecution and bloated criminal justice expenditures.

In 2011, the Texas Public Policy Foundation as well as the Heritage Foundation and others posted a criminal law checklist for federal legislators in order to combat overcriminalization. The MAPLE Act runs afoul of several of the principles detailed on the checklist, suggesting that this law might be more sap than syrup.

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Hawaii Considers Sentencing Reform

Faced with skyrocketing corrections costs, Hawaii policymakers are now considering important sentencing reforms to streamline the state budget for jails and prisons.

The Council on State Governments Justice Center worked with the Governor, legislators and state judges to research the state’s criminal justice system and issue a report which details the various ways to make the system more effective and cost-efficient.

The report pointed to the success of the “Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement,” (HOPE) model, which successfully uses “swift-and-sure” responses to probation violations. It also highlighted the major need for flexibility in drug offender sentencing, an increase in felony theft thresholds, and parole reform.

Sentencing reform in Hawaii is predicted to save the state millions in the first year alone, with increased savings as the system’s reforms affect more offenders in the years to come.

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Missouri Chief Justice Urges Systematic Changes

In September, Right on Crime noted the work of a Missouri task force studying sentencing reform. The task force recommended, among other things, shortening probation and parole terms and implementing a system of swift and sure sanctions for violations.

The Chief Justice of Missouri’s Supreme Court, Richard Teitelman, last week urged policymakers to consider and pass the changes in his annual State of the Judiciary address. The changes would provide reductions not only in prison populations (which would reduce the need for costly prison construction), but also in up-front state expenditures.

Missouri is fortunate that all three branches of its government are working for comprehensive criminal justice reform. The attention from the chief justice indicates the significance that the issue currently carries in the state.

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Provide Alternatives, Don’t Build New Facilities

Belknap County, New Hampshire recently hired an analyst to put together a plan for its county jail system, including the construction of a new jail.

But when the analyst concluded his research and addressed county officials, judges, legislators, and law enforcement officers to discuss the plan, he instead instructed them on a better way to handle corrections.

In the last decade, the number of inmates grew by 114 percent, daily population rates increased by 148 percent, and average lengths of stay rose by 144 percent.

The result was an overflowing county jail and a strapped county budget.

The analyst pointed to community-based treatments, intensive community transition in a halfway house, swift and sure sanctions, risk analyses, and diversions such as drug and mental health courts as ways to create a more efficient and effective criminal justice system in the county.

These alternatives to jail construction need to be considered everywhere – not just Belknap County. The high cost of building increasingly larger jails drains county budgets and taxpayers’ wallets, and it often does little to reform low-level offenders.

It may not have been what the county hired the analyst for, but it may be exactly what it needed to hear.

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Ten Truths about Juvenile Justice Reform

Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have published an issue brief entitled “Ten Truths about Juvenile Justice Reform.” The brief presents ten fundamental, nationwide truths for getting better outcomes from youth offenders and for making juvenile justice systems more cost-effective. The brief includes examples from several states and provides a starting point for state-level reform.

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Discussing Overcriminalization with Stacy Powells

On January 18th, I discussed overcriminalization on KMMT Radio in California with Stacy Powells.  The complete interview can be heard by clicking below:

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