New York Times
September 2, 2001

States Easing Stringent Laws on Prison Time


Reversing a 20-year trend toward ever-tougher criminal laws, a number of states this year have quietly rolled back some of their most stringent anticrime measures, including those imposing mandatory minimum sentences and forbidding early parole.

The new laws, along with a voter initiative in California that provides for treatment rather than prison for many drug offenders, reflect a political climate that has changed markedly as crime has fallen, the cost of running prisons has exploded and the economy has slowed, state legislators and criminal justice experts say.

After a two-decade boom in prison construction that quadrupled the number of inmates, the states now spend a total of $30 billion a year to operate their prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And with voters saying they are more concerned about issues like education than street violence, state legislators are finding they must cut the growth in prison inmates to satisfy the demand for new services and to balance their budgets.

"I think these new laws are pretty significant, with legislators taking politically risky steps that would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago," said Michael Jacobson, a former corrections commissioner for New York City who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"When the spigot stops, you are forced to look at the items that have grown the most, and inevitably, in every state, it is corrections," Professor Jacobson said.

With several states re-examining their criminal laws, including New York, Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico and Idaho, these changes are likely to hasten a decline in the number of state prison inmates, which began to fall in the second half of last year for the first time since 1972, the experts and lawmakers say.

Perhaps the most significant changes, the experts say, occurred in four states that this year dropped some 1990's sentencing laws that required criminals to serve long terms without the possibility of parole. The four are Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana and North Dakota.

Iowa passed a similar law last spring, giving judges discretion in imposing what had been a mandatory five-year sentence for low-level drug crimes and certain property crimes, including burglary.

In May, Mississippi passed a law making first-time nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after serving only 25 percent of their sentences, instead of the 85 percent required under a law enacted in 1994. Since the earlier law went into effect, the number of prison inmates in Mississippi jumped to 37,754 this year, from 10,699 in 1994, according to state figures.

And West Virginia, which has had one of the fastest-growing prison systems, enacted a law to reduce the number of inmates by giving money to local counties to develop alternatives to prison, like electronic monitoring of people on probation and centers where probationers would report each day.

"These may be small states, and the new laws are not comprehensive reforms, but it is very significant that these are not just liberal Northeastern states," said Nicholas Turner, director of the State Sentencing and Corrections Project at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, a research organization that is working with a number of the states to reduce prison costs and explore options instead of prison. "What has happened this year in these states implies a lot about a change in the political culture."

Some lawmakers and lobbyists say such a shift is looming in New York, where Gov. George E. Pataki has proposed softening the state's notoriously tough Rockefeller-era drug laws, and the Democratic-controlled State Assembly has insisted on even more far-reaching changes.

Perhaps the most surprising change has come in Louisiana, which has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation and has long had a reputation for brutal prison conditions and wide racial disparities in who is sentenced to prison.

Louisiana's new law, strongly supported by Gov. Mike Foster, a conservative Republican, and the state district attorneys' association, eliminates mandatory prison time for crimes like burglary of a residence, possession of small amounts of drugs, Medicaid fraud, prostitution, theft of a firearm and obscenity. Since Louisiana imposed mandatory minimum sentences six years ago, its prison population has increased by 50 percent, to 38,000 from 25,260, and was projected to grow to 46,000 by 2004. Under mandatory minimum sentences, state expenditures for prisons have soared 70 percent, state figures show.

"This is an attempt to bring under control a system that was bankrupting the state and was not reducing crime," said State Senator Donald R. Cravins, a Democrat who was one of the law's prime supporters.

The situation had reached a point in Louisiana, Senator Cravins said, that "we had half the population in prison and the other half watching them," while the state spent $600 million a year on corrections and was facing a budget deficit.

"We were pouring money into a bottomless pit, but we couldn't address the real causes of crime like the lack of early childhood education," he said, a particular problem in Louisiana, which has the lowest per capita income in the nation.

Under the new bill, the state may now save $60 million a year, Senator Cravins said.

Not everyone has supported the revised laws. Some legislators have been accused of being "soft on crime" and prosecutors have complained that scrapping mandatory minimum sentences takes away one of their best tools to get street criminals to plea bargain and trade information about other criminals in exchange for lesser sentences.

Stephen Mallory, a former deputy director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics who is now chairman of the department of criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi, opposed his state's new law restoring eligibility for parole for first- time nonviolent criminals.

"It's a joke," Professor Mallory said, because "anyone in law enforcement knows these are not first- time offenders."

"There is a strong likelihood that they've committed 30 or 40 crimes before and just finally got caught."

The change in the law will be costly for society, Professor Mallory said. "If you turn out someone who is a real career criminal, you will save $30,000 in prison costs, but he will do $100,000 worth of property and emotional damage in more crimes."

But State Representative Michael P. Lawlor, a Democrat who is chairman of the Connecticut House judiciary committee, says he sees another advantage to the new laws, including the one sponsored in his state by Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, that ends a decade-old system of mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders. He said the changes would help reduce huge racial disparities in who goes to prison.

Nine out of 10 people in jail and prison in Connecticut for drug offenses are black or Hispanic, Mr. Lawlor said, but half of those arrested on drug charges are white. Part of the problem, he said, is a Connecticut law that established a mandatory sentence for selling or possessing drugs within two-thirds of a mile of a school, day care center or public housing project.

The result, Mr. Lawlor said, is that 90 percent of cities like Hartford or New Haven are within these areas, and so poor and minority people who live in these areas end up in prison for any drug charge.

"I think this is the most significant change in criminal justice policy we have made in more than 10 years," Mr. Lawlor said. "Two or three years from now you are going to be able to look back and see the new law has made a tremendous impact on who is in prison."

And there are more states where change may soon come. The sponsors of the California referendum that was approved by voters last November mandating drug treatment instead of incarceration for first- and second-time offenders convicted of drug possession, are pushing to get a similar initiative on the ballot in Florida, Ohio and Michigan for the 2002 election.

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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