Reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies, many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up, reports the Washington Post. To ease the overcrowding and save California about $1.1 billion over two years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed freeing about 22,000 prisoners convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses 20 months earlier than their scheduled release dates. Rhode Island legislators approved an expansion last week of the state’s “good time” early-release rules to cover more inmates serving shorter sentences. In Kentucky, where 22,000 state inmates are housed in county prisons and private facilities, lawmakers agreed to allow certain nonviolent, nonsexual offenders to serve up to 180 days of their sentences at home.
Proposals to free prisoners are met with opposition, particularly from law enforcement officials who fear that a flood of released felons could return to their communities, and from victims groups that worry that justice is being sacrificed for budgetary concerns. The California plan has drawn criticism from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state’s nonpartisan fiscal adviser, which warned that 63,000 mid-level offenders would “effectively go unpunished, serving little or no prison time” and would not have active supervision. Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, says the Pew Center on the States. Spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent.