With Leaner Budgets, States Are Looking for Alternatives to Incarceration
The budget woes that marked the past year may have been a greater spur to criminal justice reform than any number of academic books or policy reports. Across the country, states have expanded the use of community-based diversion programs as an alternative to incarceration; created more substance abuse programs for offenders; weakened mandatory sentencing for drug offenses; established incentives for local law enforcement agencies to reduce recidivism; commissioned task forces or studies on sentencing issues; and more. The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a state-by-state summary of significant sentencing and corrections legislation over the past year (h/t: Doug Berman).
Of course, there’s a difference between enacting a law and actually using it. The New York Times has this report on a New York compassionate release law that is not yet having much of an actual effect:
But despite fanfare within the corrections field about the humanitarian and financial benefits of compassionate release — New York is one of a dozen states that have expanded, enacted or streamlined programs over the past two years — the policy shift has had minimal effect. Experts attribute this to the fear that freed inmates, no matter how sick, might commit further crimes, as well as to the difficulty of placing dying criminals in nursing homes.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said 39 states had compassionate release programs, but many of them also have minimal impact.
In California, where federal judges ordered the state to cut the prison population by 40,000, three people were granted compassionate release last year. In Alabama, where prisons are at double their capacity, four sick inmates were let out on compassionate release in the 2009 fiscal year; 35 other prisoners in Alabama died while their applications were being reviewed.