Civil Liberties

Baby Stepping Toward a Better Prison System


The prison reform train might be rounding the bend, as policymakers in many budget-busted states realize that long-needed changes to their incarceration-happy justice systems could save money and reduce crime. 

No one's pushing for optimum privatized solutions quite yet, but a growing cadre of governors and other state officials are talking a good game on reforms that would take a chunk out of the $50 billion now spent each year on prisons. That number ranks second only to Medicaid on state balance sheets and is four times what was spent 10 years ago. Some proposals even include releasing or paroling nonviolent offenders.

Ideas floated by governors in the past month include giving judges greater flexibility to fit punishment to the crime in Indiana; daytime education centers in Georgia; Arkansas paroling more terminally ill prisoners; and Florida moving 2,000 prisoners to private jails for a savings of $135 million. Pennsylvania's auditor general is warning of the unsustainable costs racked up by the nation's fastest growing penal system, including $250 million spent for exporting prisoners to Michigan and Virginia. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has his state entering a study from the Pew Center on the States, a think tank that's done work on prison reform in more than 20 states.

Now the bad news: Interest groups with a stake in prison bloat will still fight the public good. In California, new-old governor Jerry Brown (D) hasn't moved too hard on reforming the state's cruel and unusually full jails despite election promises. This may have something to do with the fact that the state's prison guard union endorsed Brown for governor. Meanwhile in Indiana prosecutors are resisting the push to reduce drug sentences.

We're still a long way from real reform, but it is a start.

More from Reason on prisons and punishment here. Click below to watch UCLA Professor of Public Affairs Mark Kleiman tell how we can reduce the "randomized draconianism" built into America's justice system.