Friday, March 5, 2010

Fear and the Limits of Fiscally Driven Prison Reductions

Monica Davey's excellent NYTimes article today on the growing backlash against budget driven prison releases highlights a number of crucial issues facing those who hope budget woes will help break the states of their addiction to Mass Incarceration and Governing through Crime. She focuses on Michigan which in 2007 found itself with the 5th largest prison population in the country in the company of much larger states, and with a fast dwindling industrial economy. Because Michigan has a parole law, political leaders could both allow sentences to grow longer in the 1990s when fear of crime was rampant and fear based SUV sales kept Michigan's revenues strong. Thus while crime was dropping all over the country in the 1990s, Michigan's parole release rate was dropping. Once the fiscal crisis began, Governor Granholm could use the parole process (which she expanded by 15 new members to speed things along) to reduce the population by raising the parole rate. That is a tool state's like California, that give fixed sentences to most of their felony prisoners do not have.

However, Davey's article also underscores the political resistance to using parole or other early release vehicles. In Michigan, but also Illinois, and Colorado, "victim's rights" groups, prosecutors, and law enforcement, is opposing early release as a threat to public safety. These politically invested and powerful voices are much more significant than the corporate prison industry in keep the state's locked in. How many politicians could resist this kind of rhetoric:

In February, lawmakers in Oregon temporarily suspended a program they had expanded last year to let prisoners, for good behavior, shorten their sentences (and to save $6 million) after an anticrime group aired radio advertisements portraying the outcomes in alarming tones. “A woman’s asleep in her own apartment,” a narrator said. “Suddenly, she’s attacked by a registered sex offender and convicted burglar.”


Unknown said...

Case 1: A young drug addict that financed his drug use by being a burglar is let out of prison early due to budget issues. Two months after release, he is back on drugs and breaks into your elderly parents home to steal their stuff. While he is in the home, your parents return and surprise the burglar. The burglar panics and kills your parents because they saw him and he does not want to go back to prison.

Case 2: A sex offender, who had molested a 10 yr old girl is released early due to budget issues. Soon after release, he kidnaps your 12 yr old daughter, rapes, and murders her.

How would you feel if either of these cases or others like them happen to someone in your family and you found out that the state has released the criminal early. I guess most liberals who are anti death penalty and want shorter prison terms would still be happy with these types of programs.

Think about it. All that you can do is pray that one of these early release thugs does not hurt your family.

wlthaya said...

Anyone can write emotionally traumatizing scenarios to try to keep people from trying to understand what we should do about the soaring prison population and the burden it puts on states. Whether or not my parents are killed by a junkie or my daughter is raped,the prison system is not working and the first thing to do is to understand how and why the situation has come to the impasse described in the article.

Hadar Aviram said...

I've actually written a bit about this. I think the fiscal argument has a lot of benefits, but agree it's limited.