Alternatives to Incarceration Prevail in Some States

By: - July 1, 2011 12:00 am

With most states’ legislative sessions now finished, 2011 will be remembered for the bipartisan success that several big sentencing and prison proposals found, though not in the state that arguably needs such measures the most.

Kentucky , Ohio and Oklahoma all saw Democrats and Republicans agree on major changes in prison policy. Lawmakers in the three states agreed to divert low-level criminal offenders from costly state prison beds into alternative settings, such as halfway houses and substance-abuse treatment programs, while allowing other inmates to become eligible for parole sooner.

The measures were prompted by the need to contain rising prison populations, which have resulted in sharply higher costs for states at a time when they can ill afford it. Notably, the proposals were backed by a substantial number of Republicans, who in many states have come to view huge prison spending as running counter to fiscal conservatism.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican, signed legislation on Wednesday (June 29) that makes a number of changes detailed by The Plain Dealer of Cleveland . They include giving more inmates the chance to reduce their sentences with earned-time credits, requiring judges to send low-level offenders to halfway houses and other prison alternatives, and asking the corrections department to release some older prisoners who are no longer deemed a threat.

Ohio’s measure also eliminates a sentencing disparity that punished crack cocaine users more severely than those who use the powder form of the same drug, The Plain Dealer noted. The federal government and about a dozen states still treat the two forms of cocaine differently, much to the disapproval of civil-rights advocates who claim that such policies unfairly discriminate against minorities, who more commonly use the crack version of the drug.

In neighboring Kentucky, the two men who will be running against each other for governor this year — Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear and Republican Senate President David Williams — stood side by side as they announced an overhaul of criminal justice policies in March. The plan reduces prison time for low-risk offenders and expands funding for drug treatment programs to help addicted inmates.

In Oklahoma, Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed legislation that increases the number of offenders who will be supervised in the community and speeds parole for low-risk prisoners, according to The Oklahoman of Oklahoma City.

“It’s the first significant piece of legislation favoring alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders,” the paper noted. ” Legislators over the years have passed ‘tough on crime’ measures that have increased penalties and prison sentences, a key reason why Oklahoma’s incarceration rate routinely ranks in the top five nationally.”

But while bipartisan accord was crucial to new prison policy in the heartland, there was no such agreement in California , where majority Democrats failed to attract a single Republican vote for a major realignment that would shift tens of thousands of inmates from the severely overcrowded state prison system to local jails. The plan seeks to address a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that found California prison conditions unconstitutional. The measure passed both legislative chambers by simple majority vote, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it, but prospects for the change are uncertain because it depends on money that has yet to materialize for the state.

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