NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Treatment Instead of Jail Time

August 22, 2003

States are granting early release to nonviolent prisoners, cutting sentences, sending drug offenders to treatment centers and revising tough-on-crime laws in reverse of a 20-year trend. State lawmakers haven't gone soft on crime. They're just short of cash to pay for some of the anti-crime and anti-drug laws approved in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result, drug offenders increasingly are getting treatment instead of jail time:

  • California put 30,469 drug offenders in treatment programs in its first year of a voter-approved program, while Arkansas, Connecticut, Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi, Kansas, Texas, South Dakota and Washington also reduced drug penalties.
  • Mandatory-minimum sentencing laws were revised in Michigan, Missouri and Delaware, so judges had more flexibility to determine how long criminals should be locked up.
  • Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington released prisoners ahead of their scheduled release.

Criminal justice usually ranks just behind education and health care in percentage of state spending. As the economic downturn left states short of revenue to cover costs in the past two years, lawmakers cut programs, increased taxes and borrowed heavily to balance their budgets. Criminal justice was a frequent target for cuts or less-expensive ways of handling criminals.

Source: Patrick McMahon, "States revisit 'get-tough' policies as revenue slows, prisons overflow," USA Today, August 10, 2003.

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