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Prison reform proper part of budget debate
The latest U.S. Census data for Nebraska will be released soon, and isn't likely to have much good news for rural parts of the state that aren't along Interstate 80.
There's one segment of the population that is booming, however, but that also isn't good news.
A study released today by the Platte Institute for Economic Research, a conservative think-tank, points out that while the Nebraska population grew by less than 10 percent between 1995 and 2005, the state prison population climbed by 34 percent.
Nebraska taxpayers pay for one corrections employee for about every two prison inmates. Corrections spending has gone from $50 million in 1990 to more than $200 million in 2005.
In 2001, the study points out, Nebraska's prison population stood at 164 percent of capacity. After a new prison was built at Tecumseh (instead of McCook, which felt it deserved the facility, but that's another story), the situation didn't get much better. By 2006, the Department of Correctional Services was operating at 140 percent of capacity -- and McCook's Work Ethic Camp, built to try to rehabilitate non-violent offenders, assumed a new additional role for inmates about to return to society.
Thanks to what the study's authors call a conservative "'tough-on-crime' approach" that was "neither tough on crime nor particularly conservative," 57 percent of Nebraska inmates were in prison for non-violent crimes in 2007.
Is prison always the best answer for dealing with those who commit non-violent crimes? In light of current budget problems, the answer is, increasingly, no.
Worse yet, overcrowding pressures officials to release prisoners who don't yet deserve a chance to live in a free society.
The study's authors favor geriatric parole like that which is hoped to save California $200 million year. Most geriatric parole systems allow prisoners to apply when they reach 65, and only if they are medically unlikely to be healthy enough to be a danger to society. California's expectations are probably optimistic, we doubt it would have much impact in Nebraska, but it's certainly worth consideration.
The authors also favor the expanded use of drug courts, and we agree.
According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the average recidivism rate for offenders who complete a drug court program is between 4 and 29 percent, compared to 48 percent who do not participate in a drug court program. The Government Accountability Office reports recidivism reductions of 10 to 30 percentage points below the comparison group.
We would add to that expanded community corrections efforts like those already under way in Nebraska, as well as re-emphasis on the Work Ethic Camp's rehabilitative role.
For the long term, while we cannot afford to let nonviolent offenders prey on victims of their crimes, neither can we afford to lock up in prison those who can be dealt with through more effective, less costly methods.
The study is available at http://www.platteinstitute.org/