States, Strapped for Cash, Explore Alternatives to Prison Sentences


The justice system in Kentucky, and around the nation, is looking outside the box—or outside the cell—when it comes to criminal rehabilitation.

With 1 in every 31 adults in this country currently incarcerated or on probation or parole, many states are finding that they can no longer afford to house inmates in such high numbers.

Kenton County, KY, has taken back some beds that it used to rent to federal agencies. Despite this cutback, however, deputy jailer Scott Colvin says that there still aren’t enough spaces. “I have seen prisoners asleep in hallways because all the beds were filled and all the floor space was filled,” he states.

Part of the problem, say correctional officials, is that state prisons are being used to hold nonviolent offenders, such as those who have been convicted of drug or property-related crimes. Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear recently signed a law that will mandate treatment, not prison terms, for convicted drug offenders.

Montana, Kansas and Pennsylvania are enacting similar measures, while other states, like California, Utah and South Carolina, are debating whether or not to let some inmates out of prison before their terms are actually up.

A judge in Hawaii is taking an even more creative approach to solving the overcrowding problem. Instead of sending former inmates back to prison—often for as long as 10 years—after minor violations, such as missing appointments with their parole offices, Steven Alm now sentences them to short but immediate stints in jail. The offenders begin to receive perks, like having to check in with probation or parole officials less often, once they begin to change their behavior. Alm’s programs has shown impressive results, including 80 percent fewer violations.

Back in Kansas, an extensive reentry program has begun to decrease the prison population, a necessary and welcome measure after the prison system in that state faced a half-billion-dollar shortfall last year.

Opponents of the sentencing reforms say that the offenders’ records are not always as they seem. Tom Sneddon, of the National District Attorneys Association, says that “there aren’t people sitting in prison who don’t belong there.” Sneddon cites cases in which drug offenders are offered a plea deal in which they are sent to prison on only one of many crimes they were initially charged with—some of which may have been violent.

Still many states are finding that they have to start saving money across the board, and the correctional systems are just one of many that are facing cutbacks.


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