Swelling prisons force Nevada, other states to seek options
The inmates at Nevada’s Warm Springs Correctional were still adjusting to their cramped quarters and new cellmates when Gov. Jim Gibbons toured their cell block.
After walking down a hallway between 12-by-12-foot cells now holding four prisoners each, he urged state lawmakers to vote for bigger prisons.
“It doesn’t take much more than that to force the system into a meltdown,” Gibbons warned of the crowded conditions, and lobbied for lawmakers to pass his $300 million budget request for prison expansion.
But in Carson City and several other state capitols, lawmakers are starting to push back against seemingly continual demands for larger prisons and the hefty price tags that come with them. Lawmakers are finding that the harsh mathematics of prison growth can trump party allegiances.
In Connecticut, Texas, Kansas and Nevada, Republicans and Democrats alike are trying to push some of that prison money into mental health and drug treatment programs, which they say will be more effective at treating the root problems of crime.
“There’s a very definite change in the budget tone,” said state Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City. “It’s one thing to say you’re all going to jail until the sun comes up, but that takes significant resources.”
The mood in state legislatures is far different than it was in the 1990s, when Nevada lawmakers last voted to expand the Warm Springs prison. That expansion was part of a statewide prison boom that followed the passage of stringent sentencing laws.
“Crime was the No. 1 issue,” said Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1995. “Victims felt like there was no rhyme or reason to sentencing.”
Victims’ rights groups packed hearings around the country. Legislators listened, voting to extend sentences and erect prisons.
Washington was part of a group of Nevada lawmakers who worked to establish a “mandatory minimum” sentencing system, hitching the state to a national trend. The federal government was offering extra grant money to states that used such “truth in sentencing” laws, and by 1996 most states had one.
Sentences for violent offenders around the country nearly doubled, hitting an average of 88 months, according to one U.S. Department of Justice study.
Ten years later, the costs of tougher sentences continue to mount, while the benefits have remained elusive. State legislatures have a case of “spending fatigue” when it comes to prisons, says Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments in New York.
“Why aren’t we doing any better in terms of recidivism rates?” Thompson asked. “We’re spending that much more money, and the same number of people are going back to prison. We should be getting better outcomes.”
Thompson works with consultants who help legislators in states struggling to control the growth of their prison systems. The Justice Center provides policy makers with research, nonpartisan advice and analyses of state prison populations – even maps that show lawmakers which zip codes suck up most of the state’s prison dollars.
The policy options are tailored to each state, but they all include a basic prescription: expand drug treatment and mental health programs for offenders, offer time-off incentives for completing those programs, and separate the truly high-risk offenders from the many low-risk ones.
They also tend to have a common source of funds: the savings from prisons that won’t get built.
After implementing such reforms in 2003, Connecticut cut its prison population by about 1,000 inmates, a 5 percent cut in a year when many states saw sharp increases.
Before the policy change, years of passing tougher punishment statutes left the state with a ballooning prison budget, but no real dent in crime, said Connecticut Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven. From 1986 to 1996, the state’s annual spending on prisons quadrupled, eclipsing the cost of the state’s higher education system.
That looming fiscal disaster pushed liberals and conservatives together, Lawlor said.
“When it comes to criminal justice, people agree on 90 percent of the stuff,” Lawlor said. Violent people, keep them locked up. But a homeless, mentally ill guy?”
Perhaps no state is being hit by the prison growth crunch more than Nevada, where a perfect storm of rapid growth and higher-than-average crime and incarceration rates have pushed the state’s prison population up 60 percent in the past 10 years. Unless lawmakers change some policies, a prison population of about 13,000 is projected to rise above 22,000 within a decade.
At a series of April hearings, Nevada lawmakers heard testimony from Justice Center consultants, who told them that tough punishments alone would not solve the state’s problems.
Their report recommended mandatory probation for minor offenses, and better supervision for those probationers. Lawmakers should beef up the state’s sorely lacking drug treatment and mental health programs, and offer good-time credits to offenders who complete programs – even if that puts their sentence below the mandatory minimum, said Dr. James Austin, a criminologist who consults with the Justice Center.
Those steps could free up almost 400 prison beds in the next two years, and could save nearly 1,300 beds over a decade, he estimated.
It’s a similar solution to what the Justice Center group has recommended this year in Kansas and Texas, two other states where lawmakers are considering slashing proposals to build new prisons, and putting more money into programs for offenders.
In the Texas House of Representatives, lawmakers from both parties have rejected prison officials’ initial requests for $440 million to build three new prisons. Now they’re negotiating with the state Senate to divert some of that money to treatment programs, said state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson.
“It’s a major, earthshaking change,” Madden said. “People are thinking a lot differently. There are some members that think we just have to build more prisons” but they’re in the minority this year, he said.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said she’s optimistic that in a tight budget year, Nevada legislators also will see the value of treatment programs instead of new prisons.
“We’re seeing very clearly the choice between education and prisons,” she said.
While probation reform seems like a clear winner, loosening any sentencing standards may be a tougher fight.
All it takes is one high-profile crime to pack a hearing with witnesses asking for longer sentences, said Amodei, who chairs the Nevada Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
As of this week there were 13,113 inmates in Nevada’s eight prisons
Men’s prisons at 160 percent of capacity: 11,945
Women’s prisons 200 percent of capacity: 1,168
By 2009, more than 14,000 inmates will be housed in facilities built to accommodate 8,700
Two-year budget includes $301 million for expansion problems
There are more than 1,000 illegal aliens in the prison population.