Strapped for Cash, States Set Some Felons Free ; Michigan and Others Scale Back Mandatory Sentences, and Look for Prison Alternatives to Save Money

Article excerpt

As a result of the nation's budget crunch, Karen Shook could be handed a "get out of jail free" card very soon.

The suburban mother of three has served nine years of a 20- to 40- year sentence for conspiracy to sell cocaine under Michigan's mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. Last month, Gov. John Engler (R) signed a bill that repeals them and hands much discretion back to judges. The new law, which goes into effect in March, is retroactive. As a result, Ms. Shook will come up for parole 10 years earlier than expected.

"She was an addict that police said was 'easy mark' who introduced an undercover officer to a supplier," says Laurie Quick, her sister. "She did wrong, no question, but she should have gotten treatment."

As states cope with the worst fiscal crisis since World War II, the "get tough on crime" policies that tripled the nation's prison population - and quintupled spending on corrections - over the past quarter century are coming under increasing scrutiny. During 2000 alone, states spent more than $40 billion on prisons, or $1 out of every $14 general-fund dollars, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington.

From Michigan to Ohio to North Carolina, governors and lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce criminal-justice budgets by cutting down on the number of inmates. Drug laws, parole policies, and truth- in-sentencing requirements are all on the table. And in many states, like Michigan, it's conservative lawmakers who've taken on the mantle of reform.

Focus on nonviolent offenders

The process is speeding up a reform movement started by a small number of grass-roots groups a decade ago, which has shifted public opinion in favor of alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. It now promises to revamp the way the nation deals with criminals by offering more nonviolent offenders a range of alternatives, from drug treatment to community service.

"We created a monster, thinking we could lock up all of those people for long periods of time," says Reginald Wilkinson, director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and past president of the American Correction Association. "We've gotten a a wake-up call for us to look at how to better manage the billions of dollars that are being dispersed to prison agencies."

Of state funds spent on prisons in 2000, more than half - $24 billion - went to imprison nonviolent offenders. Many of them, like Ms. Shook, were involved with illegal drugs and got caught up with the tough mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that were enacted first in New York in 1973. They were designed to get drug kingpins off the street, but studies show they more often ended up giving low-level and first-time offenders long prison sentences.

From 1980 to 1997, the number of imprisoned drug offenders increased more than 10 times in the US, while the number of violent offenders doubled.

Mike Kowall, a conservative Michigan lawmaker, was a strong advocate of the mandatory minimum laws when they were first instituted. …