States continue move toward alternatives to incarceration

As Facing South has reported, states facing massive budget crises have begun to move away from a "lock-'em-up" approach in prison policy. The trend continues as states deal with rising prisons costs.

The Washington Post reported today that some states are expanding alternatives to jailing low-level offenders, including funding alternative sentencing methods and streamlining probation and parole:
The alternative sentencing methods have been in limited use for years, often with little funding and less publicity. But recently they have gained in popularity across the country and have attracted interest from lawmakers. The measures include drug courts, which allow low-level drug offenders to avoid prison time through treatment and intense, personal, weekly intervention by a judge, and at least 500 courts for people arrested for driving while intoxicated. Drivers avoid jail by attending regular alcohol-treatment classes and by submitting to random tests.

States have also begun to shorten probation and to reduce the number of people sent to prison for technical violations, such as missing appointments. Some states are also more readily granting parole to prisoners as they become eligible, reversing a trend that kept even parole-eligible inmates locked up longer.
States spent a record $68 billion on corrections in 2008, and according to the Pew Center on the States it costs an average of $79 a day to keep an inmate in prison but about $3.50 a day to monitor the same person on probation or parole. The movement for sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration reflects changes that have been been bubbling up on the national scene for the last few years even before the economic crisis.

It's also a shift that Congress and the White House are getting behind. Recently, President Obama has asked Congress to support prisoner-reentry programs, sentencing reform and prison policy review. This spring Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced new legislation that would create a commission charged with completing a top-to-bottom review of the country's entire criminal-justice system.

Even traditionally tough-on-crime states are embracing new policies. As the Post reports, Texas has become an example a state successfully slowing down jail population growth:
Texas is a case in point. From 1978 to 2004, the inmate population rose 573 percent and the state's population increased 67 percent. With hard sentencing laws and some conservative judges, Texas built a "lock 'em up" reputation. The state has more than 155,00 inmates and leads the nation in putting prisoners to death.

But two years ago, Texas officials were faced with an alarming projection: By 2012, the state would need 17,000 more beds, which would mean building eight prisons at a cost of nearly $1 billion.
Texas would in turn go on to make changes to its incarceration polices. In its 2007 legislative session, the state passed more funding for drug and DWI courts, and shortened the average probation time. Prison population growth has almost trickled to a stop.

Texas is not alone in the South in making the shift. As Forbes reported today:
Georgia, for instance, bolstered the authority of probation officers to impose administrative sanctions on violators in certain circumstances. The theory is that quicker punishment for those who break the rules of their release will cut down on the chances of more serious crimes that lead back to prison.

A pilot program of four Georgia courts has freed up probation officers to supervise more and spend less time waiting for a judge in court. It's also cut jail time for inmates waiting for a court appearance by more than 70%. Total savings? $1.1 million between 2006 and 2008. Harris County burns through that in two days, but it's a start. The program became available statewide July 1.