Prison Populations Hinder Budget Cuts by Kevin Johnson

Posted: November 1, 2011 in News and politics

WASHINGTON — The rising number of prisoners serving costly
life terms across the country is complicating state officials’ efforts to make
dramatic cuts to large prison budgets, lawmakers and criminal justice officials
said.

From 1984 to 2008, the number of offenders serving life
terms quadrupled, from 34,000 to roughly 140,000, according to the most recent
count by The Sentencing
Project
, which advocates alternatives to incarceration.

One of the fastest-growing subgroups are inmates serving
life without the possibility of parole. Those numbers have jumped from 12,453 in
1992 to 41,095 in 2008 and represent the most costly inmates to house as the
aging inmates require increased medical care.

“The challenge for us is to distinguish between the
offenders we are afraid of — those who deserve to be locked up for life — and
those who we are just mad at and who can be handled outside of prison,” Texas
state Sen. John Whitmire said.

Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, helped lead an effort to
divert hundreds of offenders to less expensive treatment programs outside of
prison. He said the cost of basic housing for an inmate serving life —
calculated at $30,000 per year — can easily top $1 million over the inmate’s
lifetime.

In Texas, the second-largest state prison system in the
country, with 156,000 inmates, the number of offenders serving life without
parole has been increasing since the sentence was adopted by the state
Legislature in 2005, from 47 in 2007 to 391 this year. The number of Texas
prisoners serving life with the possibility of parole — 8,665 — has increased in
four of the past five years.

“If we’re committed to spending a lot of money on lifers
without parole, it’s going to have an impact on who comes in the front end of
the system,” Whitmire said, adding that prison should “not be the first option”
for parole and probation violators.

In California, the country’s largest prison system with
164,000 inmates, the number of prisoners serving life terms has been steadily
increasing, even as the state faces a federal court mandate to reduce the prison
population by 30,000 by 2013. More than 20% of the state’s inmates are serving
life terms or equivalent sentences.

Joseph Cassilly, a past president of the National District
Attorneys Association, said there is concern that increasing budget pressures on
state governments could drive officials to consider paroles for lifers in an
attempt to reduce costs.

“How do you explain that to a victim of a crime or a
surviving family member who thought life in prison really meant life in prison?”
Cassilly said.

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