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Rethinking US prison policy: II

January 20, 2009

Pat Nolan of Justice Fellowship takes a
look at one state’s corrections budget and the priorities it

The proposed Department of Corrections budget is a whopping 6.7 percent
of all state expenditures, $1.4 billion. This is double the $724
million spent just eight years ago in 2001. This dramatic increase in
prison costs has occurred while violent crime has decreased
significantly. Since 2001, violent crime dropped 7.6 percent, and since
1991 there has been a 27.1 percent decrease. Yet, Virginia’s prison
incarceration rate has increased 22 percent.

Lest you think that the drop in crime was the result of our large
prison budget, let’s look at what has been happening in other states.
Maryland’s violent crime rate has dropped a similar 24 percent since
1991 and they have been able to lower their incarceration rate by 5

One area that needs to be examined is the return to prison of
offenders who have not committed a new crime, but have violated their
terms of release. These technical violations have often been ignored
dozens of times, and then the system cracks down with years more in
prison. Shouldn’t there be a response short of a prison sentence that
lets these offenders know that we take the rules seriously. We need a
system of graduated sanctions that tighten down on offenders who don’t
follow the rules without forfeiting the progress they have made. One
judge summed up the situation well when he said, “Please give me more
options. Right now I can send them to prison or let them go to the

Virginia should look at how Judge Steven Alm, a former federal
prosecutor, has, with remarkable success, implemented Hawaii’s
Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or H.O.P.E. The program
enforces the rules of probation with immediate consequences. If
offenders have a dirty drug test, they are immediately taken to jail –
but not for years, just 24 or 48 hours. If they have a paying job their
incarceration is postponed until the weekend – but there is no
exception to serving it then. Drug treatment is provided for those who
have difficulty staying clean.

The results so far are excellent.

Take a look at the results reported from the HOPE program. Is
this being used elsewhere?

Read it all.


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