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Archive for Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Crowded prisons

March 12, 2003

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Arbitrarily shortening the sentences for state prison inmates seems like a risky way to help the state budget.

It's an unsettling situation when budget shortfalls start driving decisions regarding prison inmates in Kansas.

Faced with state prisons that are near capacity, state legislators and prison officials are looking for ways to avoid costly expansion of facilities.

According to the Kansas Sentencing Commission, the Kansas prison system has grown from 8,344 inmates at the end of 2000 to 8,893 inmates. That's dangerously close to the 9,016-inmate capacity, which the commission estimates could be reached by June.

The situation certainly is cause for concern, as are some of the potential solutions being considered to deal with it. Testifying Monday before the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, a Washburn University law professor offered a couple of ideas for dealing with what could become a crisis of prison overcrowding.

The state, he said, could simply release many inmates from prison a month early, or sentences could be reduced by 5 percent.

That certainly would help deal with the problem of overcrowding, but such arbitrary, across-the-board decisions don't seem well-suited for the prison system. These sentences were set for a reason. We have a Parole Board to review when inmates are released. To simply cut sentences short to save the state some money seems to short-cut an important part of the release process and could expose the general public to unnecessary dangers.

In a related issue, the Kansas Senate is preparing to debate a bill that would mandate treatment rather than a prison sentence for some drug offenders. That bill includes a section that would result in the early release of about 300 current inmates, but that provision is expected to be stripped from the bill.

Treatment is an important component of dealing with prison inmates. Without some kind of treatment and training, most offenders have little chance of turning their lives around when they finish their prison terms. On the other hand, a prison sentence serves a certain purpose in getting an offender's attention. The seriousness of a prison sentence may help motivate drug offenders to give a treatment program their full attention.

One function of prisons is to shield the public from dangerous men and women. Another goal of prisons should be to return inmates to society better able to function and be more productive than they were when they began their sentence. If they have received the effective treatment and are genuinely motivated to succeed outside prison, some inmates may be ready to step out of prison a month or two early, but that decision should be based on an inmate's progress, not on budgetary constraints.

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