The moves are welcome by some sentencing reform advocates, but others warn the policies could leave the public unsafe.
Many of the proposed policy changes that lawmakers were previously hesitant to support have suddenly become popular during the current fiscal crisis. Here are steps some states have already taken or are planning:
- California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed eliminating parole for all offenders not convicted of violent or sex-related crimes, reducing the parole population by about 70,000. He also wants to move 15,000 petty criminal from prisons to county jails.
- Kentucky has given early release to some 2,000 inmates, including some who were convicted of murder and other violent crimes.
- Virginia plans to release 1,000 inmates early.
- New York has proposed releasing 1,600 prisoners early.
- Michigan, along with nine other states, is awaiting a report from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center on ways to trim fast-rising corrections costs.
- In Florida, the corrections department has purchased tents to house some inmates in order to relieve the need for an estimated 19 new prisons.
Also in New York, Gov. David Paterson has proposed changing the state's tough Rockefeller Drug Laws that impose lengthy mandatory sentences on many nonviolent drug offenders.
The Council of State Government's Justice Center has been studying ways to reduce prison populations without reducing public safety. Some of the alternatives they have studied include early release for inmates who complete specified programs, more sophisticated community supervision of offenders, and expanded treatment and diversion programs.
"There's an unprecedented level of interest in this kind of thinking," the Justice Center's director, Michael Thompson, told reporters. "It's a combination of fiscal pressure and a certain fatigue of doing the same thing as 20 years ago and getting the same return."
But some warn that releasing offenders without proper preparation is a dangerous practice.
"The idea that we'd cut programs and then release inmates early is a toxic combination," said Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship. "Just opening prison doors and letting people out with no preparation — that's cruel to the offender and dangerous to public."