Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, warning of crowded prison conditions, favors a $300 million budget request for prison expansion, says the Associated Press. In Carson City and a few other state capitols, lawmakers are starting to push back against seemingly continual demands for larger prisons and the hefty price tags that come with them. The legislators are finding that the harsh mathematics of prison growth can trump party allegiances. In Connecticut, Texas, Kansas, and Nevada, some lawmakers of both major political parties are trying to push some of prison money into mental health and drug treatment programs, which they say will be more effective at treating the root problems of crime.
The mood in state legislatures is far different than the 1990s. “Crime was the No. 1 issue,” said Sen. Maurice Washington, who was elected to the legislature in 1995. “Victims felt like there was no rhyme or reason to sentencing.” Now, legislatures have a case of “spending fatigue” when it comes to prisons, says Michael Thompson of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. “Why aren’t we doing any better in terms of recidivism rates?” Thompson asked. “We’re spending that much more money, and the same number of people are going back to prison. We should be getting better outcomes.” Justice Center consultants told Nevada lawmakers that tough punishments alone would not solve the state’s problems. Lawmakers should beef up the state’s sorely lacking drug treatment and mental health programs, and offer good-time credits to offenders who complete programs – even if that puts their sentence below the mandatory minimum, said James Austin, a criminologist who consults with the Justice Center.