Originally published April 21, 2010
Each day across Georgia, the state Department of Corrections prepares three meals per day to feed a population that is nearly equal to the number of residents living in Marietta. It takes thousands of pounds of food to feed nearly 60,000 adult prisoners. Paying for all that food served at 31 state prisons costs taxpayers $1 billion per year, including the cost to manage 150,000 parolees.
This month the PEW Center on the States reported the first year-to-year drop in state prison population since 1972. The percentage rate began to decline in 2007, but real numbers did not decline until last year. Unfortunately, not in Georgia which posted the sixth largest percentage increase in the nation, a 1.6% growth rate, and in real numbers, the Georgia prison population grew by 843 adult felons.
Just four states incarcerate more state prisoners than Georgia. As public funds dwindle, can Georgia continue to spend 6% of its budget on corrections? Is there a more cost-effective but equally secure balance between incarceration, reduced sentences, treatment programs, parole and probation? Does the term “corrections” imply incarceration, or does it actually suggest another possible path?
The search for solutions might begin by looking west to Texas.
Lone Star State Changed Corrections Directions
Five years ago Jerry Madden became chairman of the Texas House corrections committee. Texas faced an escalating prison population and escalating costs. Madden had no criminal justice experience. But he brought to this new task the analytical focus of a retired career engineer and the discipline of a West Point graduate. His view then was, “I thought we should lock them up, throw away the key.” Madden was also smart enough to know what he did not know. He started asking questions outside the box.
Madden brought together conservative and liberal public policy foundations, including justice systems analyst Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He asked them to analyze the prison system, find common policy ground where it existed and bring forward innovative ideas that would get Texas off the spiral of more incarceration leading to more prisons leading to more incarceration leading to more prisons. “If you build it they will come,” Madden says. “Someone will send them there.”
Fast forward two years to January 2007. A year earlier the Legislative Budget Board predicted Texas would need 17,000 new prison beds within five years. Construction costs were estimated at $2 billion. Republican Governor Rick Perry was prepared to announce the state would build three new prisons costing $560 million. Jerry Madden saw an opening, “He gave me the perfect storm.”
New Programs Replaced Three New Prisons
Madden took recommendations from his study groups to Perry. He proposed a new model that would rely on additional beds for substance abuse treatment, the creation and expansion of specialty courts, additional probation funding to reduce caseloads, additional funding for mental health care and halfway houses, the creation of short-term jails for adults serving less than two years, a small increase in the annual parole percentage rate and programs that would reduce the number of incarcerated juveniles.
Madden told the governor that the new model could be accomplished for about $240 million, not $560 million, not $2 billion. His goal: Create something that would cost less than new prisons and produce better results. “There is nobody who thinks Texas is soft on crime,” Madden says. “You’re not soft on crime by doing something that’s smart.” Perry listened and was willing to invest in the new policy ideas. The governor canceled his new prisons announcement.
Initial Results: Fewer Inmates, No New Beds
Three years later Texas is showing results. Now the same Legislative Board says Texas will not need new adult prison beds until at least 2014. Texas reduced its adult prison population by 1,257 persons last year. Texas remains the nation’s second largest system with 154,000 inmates, behind only California. It has some 440,000 adults on probation, including 170,000 on felony probation.
Texas also closed four juvenile prisons within the past three years. The state now takes only juveniles who are charged with felonies; juveniles charged with misdemeanors remain in county jails. Nobody younger than age 21 serves time in an adult prison. The state provided counties with more than $57 million to help offset juvenile incarceration costs when the change was made in 2007.
Madden says these results were possible because Texas was willing to consider a new definition for corrections. “There are three types of prisoners. There are prisoners who will always come back when you let them out, those who will never come back when you let them out and those in the middle who we call the swingers. They may or may not come back. It depends on what we do for them.”
Corrections: More Than Just Incarceration
“Corrections” was redefined to correct behavior, nor just incarcerate people. Madden created four principles to drive the mission: Public safety, restitution, appropriate penalties for behavior and perhaps most important, rehabilitation. “Because that’s what corrections should be about,” Madden told a Georgia State University seminar this month in Atlanta. “That’s one of the missions. What good does it do to send somebody to prison for a time and when they come out, nothing has changed?”
Texas is by no means alone in creative corrections system thinking. But it is among few southern states achieving success. Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida all reported increased prison populations last year. The best result produced by a Southern state other than Texas was Mississippi which reduced its incarcerated adult population by 1,233 persons. That was the sixth best performance nationally.
PEW cited three reasons for the Mississippi success: A reduction in minimum time served before parole eligibility, improved tools to predict which inmates were good early release candidates and a low recidivism rate … just 0.2% of those approved for early release compared to 10.4% nationally.
Mississippi reduced the minimum prison time requirement for non-violent felons from 85% to 25% of the sentence before parole consideration eligibility. Nearly 3,100 inmates were granted early release between July 2008 and August 2009, with the corresponding 0.2% recidivism rate. South Carolina was the only other southern state to reduce its prison population last year, down 1.0%.
Madden: Change People, Their Head and Their Heart
California reduced its inmate population by 4,257 persons by not returning low-risk parolees to prison when their only issue was a technical violation of parole terms. Michigan shrank its prison population almost 12% since 2007 by reducing the number of inmates who serve more than 100% of their minimum sentence. Nevada avoided $1.2 billion in new prison construction costs by investing heavily in prison education, vocational training and substance abuse treatment.
All of this makes sense to Madden. “We started to look at things that would change people, their head, and their heart. In some cases, it was growing up. People who needed substance treatment waited six months and instead, got sent to prison. People with mental health problems, should they be in prisons or in mental health hospitals?”
Texas also removed many long-term probationers from the system. Madden again, “We said get out there and watch them where we need to watch the most, the guy or gal who has just been convicted. The guy who has been out there on probation for seven years, we don’t need to watch him much more.”
Georgia operates the nation’s fifth largest prison system in the nation’s ninth largest state. Prisoners cost taxpayers $46 per day. Reducing the Georgia prison population just 10% to even 54,000 inmates would have a $100 million positive impact on the annual state budget. No major corrections system reforms were passed during the current General Assembly.
Get Tough Meant More Prisoners, More Prisons
State prison populations rose dramatically as a result of get-tough legislation that featured mandatory sentencing, longer time served before parole eligibility, judges who used their discretion to impose long terms on non-violent offenders and politicians who won votes by vowing to get tough on crime. High profile crimes brought to the public attention by national media created strong anti-crime sentiment.
While encouraging, the 2009 year-to-year decline in state prison populations would need to continue for some years before a definite trend could be acknowledged. Crime and criminals behind bars are still a national problem. The number of state prisoners in 1972 was fewer than 175,000; today they number 1.4 million. This does not include prisoners in the federal system, or those in city and county jails.
Madden says states that are serious about instituting corrections reform should recognize differences between behavior issues and criminal issues, between keeping bad guys locked up a long time and doing the right thing so some early offenders do not return as the bad guys.
Madden told the Georgia State audience, “Anybody who thinks Texas is soft on crime, raise your hand. There won’t be a single person. Would you rather have your state taxes go to prisons to keep people locked up or maybe to build roads or pay for education or maybe tax cuts?
“Our department of corrections bought into the idea that they are about corrections. We have 75,000 people every year who go to a place called home. They leave. They go home. If we haven’t done our job of making them a better person, then we haven’t done our job of corrections. It’s better to have taxpayers than tax burdens.”