Friday, February 11, 2011

Spending cuts--what will be the payoff?

As the Texas legislature targets a wide range of potential programs and departments for the budget knife, some program cuts could cost more than the cuts save, while making our communities less healthy, productive and safe for everyone.  Take funding for programs that engage ex-inmates

Budget cuts slice programs for ex-inmates

In some states, the number of people committing new felonies while on probation or parole has inched up, in part because of cuts to programs that helped former inmates stay out of prison

By Kevin Johnson
February 10, 2011

NATIONAL — Cuts in probation and parole programs to reconcile state budget deficits could undermine recent successes in shrinking bloated prison populations, criminal justice officials say.

In some states, the number of people committing new felonies while on probation or parole has inched up, in part because of cuts to programs that helped former inmates stay out of prison. Other states are weighing substantial budget cuts to all parts of their criminal justice systems, including probation and parole programs.

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project, says some of the most successful criminal justice programs launched in recent years are at risk. "The (financial) hole is so deep," says Gelb, whose non-partisan group has helped develop state programs for managing offenders outside prison. "Programs for convicted felons are an easy target."

Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, says the fiscal crisis is "pushing more people out of prison" with fewer people to supervise them and fewer dollars to support drug treatment, housing and job assistance. "We're setting these people up for failure," Wicklund says.

A report Tuesday by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a bipartisan group that promotes public safety policy, urged lawmakers to spare programs that have been effective in reducing prison costs.

In Kansas, where officials just two years ago were spotlighting the success of the state's probation and parole strategy in reducing high prison costs, an additional 322 probationers returned to prison for committing new offenses in fiscal year 2010.

Overall, the portion of Kansas probationers who successfully completed their terms dropped to 54% in 2010 from 61% in fiscal year 2008, according to a January state report.

Roger Werholtz, Kansas' former corrections secretary, says the losses are "a casualty of the economic crisis" and stricter sentencing policies that added mandatory prison time for more offenses.

In the past two years, state records show, $10.1 million has been cut from four separate funds that support post-release rehabilitation efforts, including offender re-entry programs that match inmates with jobs, housing,
and substance abuse treatment. An additional $7.2 million in cuts have been proposed for fiscal year 2012, starting July 1.

"I had been getting invited to talk (to corrections officials in other states) about what we did right. Now I spend just as much time talking about what we could have done better," Werholtz says.

In Florida, the number of offenders who committed new felonies while on probation jumped from 7,164 in fiscal year 2007 to 9,000 in fiscal year 2009. The number declined slightly in fiscal year 2010 to 8,440. But Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger says there is concern that expected cuts to plug a $3.5 billion state budget shortfall could threaten those slight gains.

Among the most closely-watched budget battles, Gelb says, will be in Texas, as the state tries to close a deficit of up to $27 billion. Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden of Plano says cuts would threaten some
of the $240 million in treatment programs for some offenders who, without those programs, would have been ordered to prison.

Madden says the programs also were central to a slight drop in the number of parolees who returned to prison for committing new felonies in fiscal year 2010, from 24,692 in 2009 to 24,239. "We can't afford to go back (to growing prison populations)," he says. "We're not conceding anything yet."

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