“Lock ‘em up” may not be the key

A recent report by the Pew Center on the States finds that Corrections Departments’ budgets have quadrupled over the last 20 years in this country. The report points out that spending on corrections outpaces all other state spending except health care. In 2008, states spent $47 billion on corrections.

Without getting into issues of priorities, the question needs to be asked if this money is being spent in a way that is accomplishing our goals. (Before that, I guess I should stipulate that I would identify the goal to be making our community safer.) It seems as if the competing concerns that are weighed against each other are, on one hand, being tough on crime (or especially appearing so) versus the enormous strain on state budgets associated with incarceration. The current recession and the resulting crisis it has caused for state budgets, including Oklahoma’s, is forcing states across the country to implement early release programs or to be more pragmatic about the approach toward certain offenders and programs.

The goal of making our communities safer can potentially be better served by offering treatment rather than punitive or rigid sentences to certain offenders, while saving the taxpayers money in the process. The drug courts established in Oklahoma are good examples of this type of smart and productive approach. Offering non-violent drug offenders the opportunity to overcome and control their addictions through treatment is a more cost effective approach that shows better results than traditional incarceration. The prison system is too often the default provider of treatment, or warehouser, for people who are suffering from addictions or mental illnesses that could be treated more effectively and less expensively through other programs. Oklahoma evaluates options for dealing with our state budget shortfall, there are examples of successful and cost-effective corrections programs that can be references, some right here in our own state.

The Oklahoma City Drug Court is a great example of the benefits of using specialized courts to handle cases where society’s interests may be better served by handling that offender with a broader range of options than just incarceration. Washington State’s Governor Gregoire has proposed releasing low-risk female inmates whose children are in foster care so that the women could receive “alcohol and drug treatment in the community and have the family reunited and have very little risk in terms of public safely to the community”. This approach saves the state money on incarceration and on foster care. A recent New York Times article lays out a host of options being considered or implemented by other states to address the conflict that has become obvious between state budgets and the desire to appear tough on crime.

“The most pervasive cost-saving trend among corrections departments has been to look closely at parole systems… In California, among the few states to mandate parole for all convicts, parole violators – not new offenders – account for the largest percentage of inmates entering the system. New Jersey recently began a program for some offenders on parole with technical violations, like failing to report to a parole officer or changing their address without the officer’s approval. Rather than being returned to jail, those former inmates are sent to a center for a clinical assessment of their risks and needs. With that change, the state is on track to save $16.2 million this fiscal year.”

As Oklahoma’s budget situation progresses, we may have to consider new models of dealing with offenders. The Oklahoman published an editorial this week that echoes this idea. We should keep in mind that the budget crisis can be the catalyst for change that, not only saves money, but improves the system at the same time. “Lock ’em up and throw away the key” has not served the desired purpose so far.


Oklahoma Policy Insititute (OK Policy) advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all Oklahomans through non-partisan research, analysis, and advocacy.

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