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Posts Tagged ‘community-based programs’

Dollar sign chainTurns out the recession may be the best thing to happen to America’s prisons in quite a while. As California struggles to devise a plan to release 40,000 inmates from its prisons as mandated by a federal court, other states are voluntarily looking to release prisoners early and exploring alternatives to incarceration in an attempt to both save money and fix the nation’s fractured prison system.

In recent months, states including Kentucky, Michigan, Colorado, Florida, New York, Ohio, North Carolina, and Mississippi have initiated early-release programs for nonviolent offenders. Not every prisoner is eligible for early release; typical participants have served time for small-quantity drug possession or minor offenses like parole violations. (In other words, felons and violent offenders don’t make the cut.)

Illinois recently decided to follow suit by announcing a plan to release 1,000 inmates, a move that could save the state $5 million in just one year. Governor Pat Quinn also allotted $2 million toward community-based alternative and drug treatment programs that will help keep people out of prison. This is an outstanding move–many community-based programs have a proven record of success at reducing prison entry and recidivism rates. And considering that nearly 25 percent of prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, with some 33 percent of state prisoners and 26 percent of federal prisoners reporting they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs while committing the crime(s) for which they are imprisoned, these programs are essential for helping people avoid prison time and beat substance abuse.

Other states are trying alternative methods of keeping prison populations down. From 2007–2008, Texas, a state known for its tough sentencing laws, implemented drug and DWI courts designed to funnel people with drug and alcohol problems into treatment programs instead of sending them to prison. In addition to instituting alternative courts, Texas also halved probation times and increased parole rates, resulting in its prison population of 155,000 shrinking.

While the consequences of early-release programs have been widely debated, there is one benefit that cannot be ignored: releasing low-risk inmates frees up money for rehabilitative programs for current prisoners. Reducing the number of inmates currently incarcerated is one step toward improving the prison system, but significant investments in rehabilitative programming, both preventative and ongoing, must be made in order to quell the prison epidemic. The current recidivism rate in the United States hovers around two thirds; this is an astonishingly high figure that shows that the contemporary penal system simply isn’t working.

It’s not enough to let prisoners out of jail early– we also need to prevent them from returning to prison. That’s an investment we can all afford.

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