Thursday, January 12, 2012

What's it Save Us?

For many a state legislator, that's the top question for sentencing reform proposals.  The problem:  many states can't provide a good answer.

That problem is highlighted and discussed in this new report released by the ACLU and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.  This blog post by Inimai Chettiar summarizes the report (a good thing for those of us who aren't budget analysts) and offers an excellent example of how states can sabotage their own sentencing reform bills:
many state budget analyses tend to focus on the upfront start-up costs of a bill, but fail to examine the later savings these programs will bring — even savings that could be realized in the following year.
Earlier this year, for example, bipartisan legislators in Maryland proposed a bill to create non-prison sanctions for individuals who commit technical parole violations, such as missing a meeting with their parole officer or failing to complete community service. More than one-third of the people behind bars in this country are there for similar technical violations, not for new crimes. Several other states have implemented this same kind of reform and reduced its prison population and spending within just a few years, while continuing to see their crime rates drop. But in Maryland, a poorly performed state budget evaluation considered only the up-front costs of the proposed program and ignored the future savings it would bring, concluding incorrectly that the reform would cost too much. As a result, the bill was scaled back. Now, Maryland will continue to automatically send most individuals who violate parole conditions back to prison even if it is for something as small as missing a parole meeting.
What a costly mistake!  There is more to good sentencing reform legislation than smart-on-crime solutions that keep the public safe.  Legislators need to know what reforms will cost -- and save.  If they don't, the results could be counterproductive.