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Prison Overcrowding, Rising Costs Prompt Surprising Reforms

Republican Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden has become one of country’s leaders in corrections reform. (AP)

BOSTON — The old political debate about law and order used to be about being soft on crime or hard on crime. But now some Republicans and southern states are touting themselves as being “smarter” on crime, not harder.

Prison overcrowding and soaring costs have prompted some surprising reforms in other states, though not Massachusetts.

The GOP Changes Its Tune On Prison Reform

“It is new thinking, it’s different thinking, it’s not being soft versus being hard,” said Newt Gingrich in 2011.

These are heady days on the Republican right. One leading conservative is calling for “zero prison growth,” while Gingrich wants to divert low-level drug offenders away from prison and into alternative treatment and job training.

“They have real evidence in a number of states that if you do the right things and you do it the right way, you save lives, you reduce the crime rate, and you save the taxpayer money,” he said.

Twenty percent of prison inmates in Massachusetts are serving time for drug offenses. And another 20 percent are serving time for property crimes committed to support their drug habits.

Hard to imagine liberals going un-criticized for this kind of talk in the “old” days, but then again it’s hard to imagine South Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas being called the “new” leaders in prison reform. But according to Len Engel, a policy analyst at the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston, they are.

What’s driving the change are budget crises.

“You’re seeing the costs of corrections increasing three-fold, four-fold, six-fold in some states,” Engel said.

In 2008, the 50 states spent $52 billion on corrections, almost all of it on prisons. It’s become the second fastest growing segment in most state budgets, even as the crime rates have consistently declined.

And what’s driving the budget crisis in corrections is the explosion of inmates and the longer sentences they now serve.

Your Average Prisoner

“My name is Brian. I’m in Middleton Jail. And I’m here for drugs.”

Brian Gibson of Boston is an average inmate in the average American jail and prison. He belongs to the fastest growing segment of America’s 2 million lock-ups.

“I have a drug problem and it’s beatin’ me. It’s really beatin’ me,” he said.

Twenty percent of prison inmates in Massachusetts are serving time for drug offenses. And another 20 percent are serving time for property crimes committed to support their drug habits.

If you’re part of the old, “hard-on-crime” way of thinking, you can blame Gibson and the non-violent inmates like him for the soaring costs of keeping them behind bars that states can no longer afford to build. But Texas tangled with this reality a few years ago and came out with a solution that is proclaimed as a national model.

A Leader In Prison Reform

Republican Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden has become one of country’s leaders in corrections reform. When the Texas speaker of the House picked him to head the Committee on Corrections, Madden got saddled with the job of figuring out what to do with an oncoming herd of prisoners.

“We started our 2007 legislative session with a forecast that said we were going to need 17,000 and a few hundred additional prison beds by 2012,” Madden said.

That meant that in five years Texas would have to build eight new prisons.

“The cost of a prison in Texas is somewhere around $200 million to build, roughly,” he said.

The Texas State House in Austin, Texas. (fusionpanda/Flickr)

The math comes out to $1.6 billion. Big even for Texas. And Madden, who was a greenhorn on corrections, had one big question.

“Mr. Speaker, what do you want me to do as chairman of the Corrections Committee? He told me, ‘Don’t build new prisons. They cost too much.’ ”

How to reduce the state’s rabbiting prison population without compromising public safety? Study teams and think tanks pointed Madden to all those non-violent offenders in Texas prisons, people like Gibson back here at the jail in Middleton.

Madden came to join a growing current of thought, expressed here by Engel:

“Prison is not a place to get good substance abuse treatment. It’s not a good place to get good mental health treatment. It’s not a place to get good employment and skill development,” Engel said. “Not to mention all the research suggests that locking people up is going to increase their criminality.”

At the Texas State House, Madden focused on diverting low-level drug abusers and mentally ill convicts into intensive, community-based treatment programs. He aimed at building halfway houses and treatment centers instead of prisons. And he pushed for increased supervision of inmates upon release.

But remember, Madden was riding the range as a Republican. And he had to sell this “softer” approach in a state that prided itself on its tough-as-rawhide reputation on crime.

For anyone who wondered if Madden had traded his cowboy boots for a soft pair of Guccis, he had this to say: “We’ll save you money and you’ll be safer.

“One thing we have in prison: They get free room, free board and free health care, at the public’s expense,” Madden said. “And if we put them out there as a person who has a job and working and living with their family, they may end up paying taxes.”

With both parties in favor, Madden’s bill won approval. Texas built no new prisons. It saved money. The crime rate dropped. And so too did the number of inmates committing crimes when they got out.

“It was a perfect storm that said this was the perfect time of opportunity,” Madden said.

In this latest budget crisis, Madden has a message for Massachusetts: get smarter, not harder.

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