Shrinking State Budgets May Spring Some Inmates With the economy in trouble, many states are taking a fresh look at who's in prison, and why. Some states, such as Kentucky, are finding that they can no longer afford to house so many inmates.
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Shrinking State Budgets May Spring Some Inmates

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Shrinking State Budgets May Spring Some Inmates


Here's a different security problem closer to home. Many states can no longer afford to keep so many inmates behind bars. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports on a problem that's been growing since the '80s.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Unidentified Man: Bush and Dukakis on crime...


SULLIVAN: The 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad.


D: Bush supports the death penalty for first degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton.

SULLIVAN: Unidentified Man: Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.


SULLIVAN: Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign never recovered. Nor did those of any other candidates dubbed soft on criminals. The country was consumed by a national crime wave fueled by the crack epidemic and gang warfare. Politicians and voters pushed for harsher penalties and longer sentences. Now, 20 years later, the result.

SCOTT COLVIN: I have seen prisoners asleep in hallways because all the beds were filled and then all the floor space was filled and you literally had to open up a door and allow inmates to sleep out into a hallway with officers.

SULLIVAN: Scott Colvin is the deputy jailer at the Kenton County Jail in Kentucky.

COLVIN: Fifteen years ago when you heard lock 'em up and throw away the keys; not three strikes you're out, two strikes you're out; not two strikes you're out, a strike and a half and you're out - we've hit the wall.

SULLIVAN: Other states are facing more drastic measures. California, South Carolina and Utah are considering letting thousands of inmates out early.

ADAM GELB: This is a big bill that's coming due from a lot of overheated rhetoric in the '80s and '90s.

SULLIVAN: Adam Gelb studies prison costs for the non-profit Pew Center on the States. He says prisons now house too many non-violent property and drug offenders.

GELG: As we cast the correctional net wider and wider, we caught smaller and smaller fish.

TOM SNEDDON: There aren't people sitting in prison who don't belong there.

SULLIVAN: Tom Sneddon, executive director of the National Association of District Attorneys, says states are wrong to up-end laws that he says have reduced crime.

SNEDDON: To balance a budget on law enforcement and public safety's expense is not a wise policy decision to be made.

SULLIVAN: Kansas came face to face with that decision last year when officials realized that the prison system was about to be short half a billion dollars. In Kansas, as in many states, the problem is not just longer sentences; it's the number of inmates who return to prison for small violations to their probation or parole. Kansas funded an extensive re-entry program and their population is already dropping. Hawaii, for its part, was having a similar problem with its offenders on probation. In 2004, one of the state's toughest judges, Steven Alm, was sentencing inmates to ten years because they missed appointments with their probation officers.

STEVEN ALM: It just rubbed me the wrong the way and I thought there has to be a better way to change offender behavior.

MONTAGNE: In the past, it could take a year before a violation sent someone to prison. Now Judge Alm sends them to jail that afternoon, but only for a few days. A four-year independent study of the inmates in the program found 80 percent fewer violations, and more importantly, the number of new crimes committed has been cut in half.

ALM: My understanding of human nature over the, you know, 25 years I've been in this business is that people can do time when they have to, but they don't want to do it today.

MONTAGNE: Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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