Some states are granting early release to non-violent prisoners, cutting sentences, sending drug offenders to treatment centers and revising tough-on-crime laws, USA Today reports. State lawmakers haven’t gone soft on crime, rather are running short of cash to pay for some anti-crime and anti-drug laws approved in the 1980s and 1990s. “It’s not like the liberals are taking over,” says Michael Lawlor, a Democrat and co-chairman of the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee. “A lot of this is driven by fiscal conservatives. We’re shifting gears from the philosophical to the practical point of view. At some point, you’re going to run out of money.”
A record 1.2 million inmates were housed in state prisons in 2002. Criminal justice usually ranks just behind education and health care in percentage of state spending. As the economic downturn left states short of revenue in the past two years, lawmakers cut programs, increased taxes and borrowed heavily to balance their budgets. Criminal justice was a frequent target for cuts or less-expensive ways of handling criminals. Some examples:
• Drug offenders increasingly are getting treatment instead of jail time. Arkansas, California Connecticut, Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi, Kansas, Texas, South Dakota and Washington reduced drug penalties.
• Mandatory-minimum sentencing laws were revised in Michigan, Missouri and Delaware, so judges had more flexibility to determine how long criminals should be locked up.
• Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington released prisoners ahead of their scheduled dates.