Ray Allen, a Texas legislator, lobbies for firearms training and prison industries. The Republican also proposed a bill now law in Texas that requires first-time low-level drug offenders to get treatment instead of prison time.
The American Prospect magazine cites this example as part of a national trend. Last year, outgoing Michigan governor John Engler signed three bills repealing the state’s mandatory minimum drug laws. Colorado has given judges discretion to put drug offenders on probation instead of sending them to prison, and states like Missouri and Delaware have cut sentences for drug offenses and low-level felonies. Arizona and Washington are channeling savings from reduced drug sentences into treatment. Indiana has a “forensic diversion” program that allows judges to send nonviolent offenders to treatment if mental illness or substance abuse contributed to the crime. In what could be the most ambitious reform, Connecticut’s legislature is debating a bill that would divert probation and parole violators away from prisons while investing the savings in infrastructure for neighborhoods with the highest crime rates.
The Prospect says the states’ fiscal crisis has put an end to the prison boom. In a special section, the magazine says the straits of the states have created strange bedfellows and rare opportunities. Reformers have termed the concept “justice reinvestment.” A dollar diverted from prison construction or from the expense of housing inmates, can bring about a net reduction in crime. Why? Because other approaches are not only much less expensive than incarceration; dollar for dollar, they actually work better.
On the front end, approaches include diversion efforts into drug treatment, restitution and a promising concept that goes far beyond “community service,” known as “compensatory justice,” in which youthful offenders become part of a community process that includes the victims, and often neighbors, as well as their own families.
For years criminologists and economists have pointed out the enormous costs of long prison sentences. The authors of one RAND Corporation study looked at mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine-related crimes and calculated that focusing on treatment would reduce serious crimes “on the order of 15 times as much as the incarceration alternatives” per million dollars spent. Earlier this year, Steve Aos of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy issued a report concluding that taxpayers now spend more to incarcerate drug offenders than the value of the crimes that the incarceration prevents.