A new report just released by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit that advocates for prison reform, shows that in at least thirteen states there had been enough of a decline in the state prison population to begin closing some facilities.
The study shows specialty courts, alternative sentencing and other diversionary programs are having an impact on state prison populations. The report, On the Chopping Block 2012: State Prison Closings, showed that sentencing reforms and changes in parole revocation policies have also been contributing factors in the overall reduction.
“As a result, state officials are now beginning to close correctional facilities after several decades of record expansion. In 2012, at least six states closed 20 prisons, potentially reducing prison capacity by over 14,000 beds and resulting in an estimated $337 million in savings,” the report said. “This year’s prison closures build on closures observed in 2011, when at least 13 states reported prison closures and reduced prison capacity by an estimated 15,000 beds.”
The closing of state prisons means not just reduced spending costs and savings, but also the possibility of increased revenues. In Illinois for example, the Thomson Correctional Center will be sold to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for $165 million to house federal inmates.
According to the study, major changes in policies and practices have contributed to the decline. The report stated that from 2004 through 2009, 36 states instituted 97 policy changes that included relaxing mandatory minimum sentences and changes in sanctions for parole violators. In some states, there was even a decline in the number of inmates in local jails. The Sentencing Project found that from 2007 to 2010, the incarceration rate in jails declined by more than three times the rate of prisons, by 6.6 percent.
“The sustained decline in both prison and jail populations has produced no adverse effects on public safety,” stated Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. “We now have the opportunity to free up resources for public safety initiatives that do not depend on record rates of incarceration.”
In Philadelphia, diversionary courts are being used as an alternative to keep from having to incarcerate low-risk offenders. The new Diversionary Courts Unit is headed by Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker, who has been officially named Chief of Diversion Courts. District Attorney Seth Williams said the new unit is a part of his office’s continuing effort to make the city safe while being smart on crime.
“This is a part of my continuing goal of focusing our resources on violent offenders,” Williams said. “By diverting more non-violent offenders into programs that will address their needs, these individuals are less likely to become repeat offenders. This is what ‘Smart on Crime’ means, and I am very pleased that Derek Riker will help the office with our ongoing efforts to make the public safer.”
The Diversionary Courts Unit is essentially an alternative to prosecution. Alternatives to prosecution or prison are becoming an increasing aspect of criminal justice across the nation, as state government seek ways to reduce the costs of incarcerating offenders. The overall goal is to reach individuals who are still low-risk offenders and turn them around before they become career criminals. The goal of these programs is to hold non-violent offenders accountable for their actions and begin addressing the underlying causational issues prior to engaging in the often lengthy trial process.
Pennsylvania has also seen a decline in the state prison population, even while there has been an increase in the county jail population in Philadelphia. Susan Bensinger, Deputy Press Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said the decline is due to several factors. She also explained why, since there is a decline, Pennsylvania is building two new prisons near SCI Graterford.
“We are seeing a drop in the number of state inmates over the last few months,” Bensinger said. “In October the number of inmates was 51,382 and in November it dropped to 51,260. Now you might think, well, that’s not much but when you consider that it costs $32,000 to house and feed an inmate, even minimal savings can be diverted to increasing other services and programs that help get people back into their communities where they’re taxpayers rather than tax burdens. We’ve seen benefits from diversionary and specialty courts where district attorneys across the state are working to get people into alternative programs. We also made some changes in the inefficiencies in parole and probations.”
Bensinger said that under the former protocols, inmates were on a time frame for parole when it came close to the sentencing being completed. But Bensinger said parole wasn’t appropriate for inmates who either hadn’t completed prison programs or were a constant discipline problem.
“The reason why we’re building two new facilities is conditions are SCI Graterford really aren’t getting any better – it’s a very old prison with heating problems and structural issues with the plumbing and it’s just antiquated. It’s become very expensive to operate. The new facilities will have state of the art heating and air conditioning and security. The layout is more conducive to line of sight, there are no blind spots. Rather than pay what we’re spending now it will lower operating costs to have the new buildings.”