States Look for Alternatives in Face of Rising Correctional Budgets

WASHINGTON — Faced with increasing inmate populations, lawmakers across the United States are exploring measures beyond prison expansion in order to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates.

Prison construction and expansion still abounds as states, such as Califor-nia, concentrate efforts to reduce prison overcrowding by expanding system capacity through the addition of new beds. However, as already overcrowded correctional systems struggle to keep pace with inmate populations, state legislators are increasingly looking at alternatives to new prison projects.

The escalating costs of correctional systems are pushing states, including Kansas and Texas , to explore reducing recidivism rates through the implementation of rehabilitation programs.

In May, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius approved a $4.4 million recidivism reduction plan that provides financial incentives to community correctional systems for reducing inmate admissions associated with technical violations of parole and probation. In order to be eligible for the state grants, authorities must cut recidivism rates by at least 20 percent, officials say.

The initiative permits low-risk inmates to win reductions to their sentences by participating in education and counseling programs. The early release initiative would cut sentences by several months for the completion of a program that lowers an inmate’s chances of returning to prison, officials say. Other states, including Michigan , have instituted similar good-time credit and work-release initiatives.

The Texas Legislature recently approved a plan that could divert thousands of inmates from prisons to treatment facilities and rehabilitation programs. The plan provides treatment facilities for 5,700 more inmates and adds space for 2,700 more inmates in prison and jail treatment programs.

The plan, which awaits approval from Gov. Rick Perry, includes a new 500-bed facility for those convicted of DWI/DUI offenses, who often have substance-abuse problems, but would otherwise receive little treatment while incarcerated, officials say.

Texas legislators also included a diversion initiative that would send first-time parole violators to short-term or intermediate facilities rather than back to prison.

Some states are considering an overhaul of sentencing, probation and parole guidelines, which could reduce incarceration rates for minor crimes or technical parole and probation violations.

Nevada recently reconvened a commission to review and make recommendations on changing the state’s sentencing laws to reduce prison overcrowding. More than 20 states have revised their sentencing laws since 2004.

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